Ian Hamilton Finlay

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Ian Hamilton Finlay
knee high portrait of subject carrying a three-foot sailboat
Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta, 1994
Born (1925-10-28)28 October 1925
Nassau, Bahamas
Died 27 March 2006(2006-03-27) (aged 80)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Nationality Scottish
Known for poetry, concrete poetry, art, gardens, sculpture, publishing
Notable work

Ian Hamilton Finlay, CBE (28 October 1925 – 27 March 2006) was a Scottish poet, writer, artist and gardener.


Finlay was born in Nassau, Bahamas, of Scottish parents. He was educated at Dollar Academy, in Clackmannanshire. At the age of 13, with the outbreak of the Second World War, he was evacuated to family in the countryside. In 1942, he joined the British Army.[7] Finlay was married twice and had two children, Alec and Ailie. He died in Edinburgh.[8]


At the end of the war, Finlay worked as a shepherd, before beginning to write short stories and poems, while living on Rousay, in Orkney. He published his first book, The Sea Bed and Other Stories in 1958 with some of his plays broadcast on the BBC, and some stories featured in The Glasgow Herald.[7]

His first collection of poetry, The Dancers Inherit the Party was published in 1960 by Migrant Press with a second edition published in 1962. The third edition, published by Fulcrum Press (London) in 1969, included a number of new poems and was inaccurately described by the publisher as a first edition and which led to a complex legal dispute.[9] Dancers was included in its entirety in a New Directions annual a few years later.[citation needed]

In 1963, Finlay published Rapel, his first collection of concrete poetry (poetry in which the layout and typography of the words contributes to its overall effect), and it was as a concrete poet that he first gained wide renown. Much of this work was issued through his own Wild Hawthorn Press. Eventually he began to compose poems to be inscribed into stone, incorporating these sculptures into the natural environment.

This kind of 'poem-object' features in the garden Little Sparta that he and Sue Finlay created together in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. The five-acre garden also includes more conventional sculptures and two garden temples.

In December 2004, in a poll[10] conducted by Scotland on Sunday, a panel of fifty artists, gallery directors and arts professionals voted Little Sparta to be the most important work of Scottish art.[11] Second and third were the Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and The Skating Minister by Henry Raeburn. Sir Roy Strong has said of Little Sparta that it is "the only really original garden made in this country since 1945".[12]

The Little Sparta Trust[13] plans to preserve Little Sparta for the nation by raising enough to pay for an ongoing maintenance fund. Ian Appleton, Stephen Bann, Stephen Blackmore,[14] Patrick Eyres,[15] Richard Ingleby,[16] Ian Kennedy, Magnus Linklater, John Leighton, Duncan Macmillan, Victoria Miro, Paul Nesbitt, Jessie Sheeler and Ann Uppington[17] are trustees.

His work is notable for a number of recurring themes: a penchant for classical writers (especially Virgil); a concern with fishing and the sea; an interest in the French Revolution; and a continual revisiting of World War II. His work can be austere, but it is also at times witty, or even darkly whimsical. His use of Nazi imagery led an accusation of neo-Nazi sympathies, and to a court case, which Finlay won. He also came into conflict Strathclyde Regional Council over his liability for rates on a byre in his garden, which the council insisted was being used as commercial premises. Finlay insisted that it was a garden temple.[18]

One of the few gardens outside Scotland to permanently display his work is the Improvement Garden in Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton, created in collaboration with Sue Finlay, Gary Hincks and Nicholas Sloan.

Finlay was nominated[19] for the Turner Prize in 1985. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Aberdeen University in 1987, Heriot-Watt University in 1993 and the University of Glasgow in 2001, and an honorary and/or visiting professorship from the University of Dundee in 1999. The French Communist Party presented him with a bust of Saint-Just in 1991. He received the Scottish Horticultural Medal from the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society[20] in 2002, and the Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award[21] in 2003. Awarded in the Queen's New Year's Honours list in 2002, Finlay was a CBE.[22]

The estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay is represented by Ingleby Gallery.


Finlay's designs were most often built by others.[7] His approximately one hundred collaborators included Patrick Caulfield, Richard Demarco, Malcolm Fraser, Christopher Hall. He also worked with a host of lettering artists including Michael Harvey and Nicholas Sloan.[23][24]

Printed works[edit]

Sculptures and gardens[edit]

Five Columns by Finlay in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

A partial list of Finlay sculptures and gardens.[25][26] A few photographs are reachable through the external links.

  • anteboreum, Yorkshire, England, private garden
  • sundial, Bonn, Germany, British Embassy, 1979
  • Five Columns for the Kröller-Müller, second title: A Fifth Column for the Kröller-Müller, third title: Corot – Saint-Just, tree-column bases named LYCURGUS, ROUSSEAU, ROBESPIERRE, MICHELET, COROT, Otterlo, Holland, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, 1982
  • a basket of lemons, a plough of the Roman sort, two oval plaques, Pistoia, Italy, Villa Celle, 1984
  • Vienna, Austria, Schweizergarten, 1985
  • Brittany, France, Domain de Kerguehennec, 1986
  • Frechen-Bahem, Germany, Haus Bitz, 1988
  • Cologne, Germany, Ungers Private Library, 1990
  • bridge columns, Broomielaw, Glasgow, Scotland, 1990
  • Ovid wall, Aphrodite herm, tree-plaque, capital, with Nicholas Sloan, Luton, England, Stockwood Park, 1991
  • tree-plaque, Hennef, Germany, private garden, 1991
  • Lübeck, Germany, Overbeck-Gesellschaft, 1991
  • Karlsruhe, Germany, Baden State Library, 1991
  • Paris, France, private garden, 1993
  • Frankfurt/Main, Germany, Schröder Münchmeyer Hengst & Co, 1994
  • stone bench, stone plinth, three plaques. pergola, tree-plaque, others, Grevenbroich, Germany, Schlosspark, 1995
  • with Peter Coates, Hamburg, Germany, 1999
  • benches, with Peter Coates, Erfurt, Germany, Erfurt Federal Labour Court, 1999
  • with Peter Coates, Carrara, Italy, Carrara International Biennale, 2002
  • Basel, Switzerland, with Peter Coates, 2003
  • with Peter Coates, St. Gallan, Switzerland, private residence, 2004

Books by Finlay[edit]

  • Finlay, Ian Hamilton[27][28] (September or October 2004) [1960 Migrant Press, 1961 Wild Hawthorn Press, 1961 Wild Flounder Press, 1969 Fulcrum Press, 1995 or 1996 or 1997 Polygon ISBN 0-7486-6207-3]. Ken Cockburn & Lilias Fraser (eds.), ed. The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts, An' a Burd. Polygon in association with Scottish Poetry Library. ISBN 1-904598-13-7.  Check date values in: |date= (help)


  • Finlay, Ian Hamilton[27][28] (September or October 2004) [1960 Migrant Press, 1961 Wild Hawthorn Press, 1961 Wild Flounder Press, 1969 Fulcrum Press, 1995 or 1996 or 1997 Polygon ISBN 0-7486-6207-3]. Ken Cockburn; Lilias Fraser, eds. The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts, An' a Burd. Polygon in association with Scottish Poetry Library. ISBN 1-904598-13-7.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Abrioux, Yves (15 December 2006) [1992 MIT Press EAN 9780262011297 or ISBN 0-262-01129-8]. Ian Hamilton Finlay. A Visual Primer (N.e.of 2r.e. ed.). Reaktion Books. ISBN 0-948462-40-X. 
  • Hendry, Joy; Alec Finlay (February 1997) [1994 Chapman Publishing ISBN 0-906772-61-3]. Wood Notes Wild: Essays on the Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Polygon. ISBN 0-7486-6185-9. 
  • Finlay, Ian Hamilton (1995). Zdenek Felix; Pia Simig, eds. Works in Europe 1972–1995 Werke in Europa. Werner Hannappel (photographer). Cantz Verlag. ISBN 3-89322-749-0. 
  • Weilacher, Udo (September 1999). "Poetry in Nature Unredeemed – Ian Hamilton Finlay" (interview) in Between Landscape Architecture and Land Art. John Dixon Hunt (Foreword). Birkhauser. ISBN 3-7643-6119-0. 
  • Lubbock, Tom (August 2002). Susan Daniel-McElroy, ed. Ian Hamilton Finlay: Maritime Works. Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-9539924-5-4. 


  1. ^ http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=4293&searchid=8659&tabview=text
  2. ^ http://tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=4326&searchid=8394&tabview=text
  3. ^ http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=4284&searchid=18641
  4. ^ http://www.ianhamiltonfinlay.com/images/ihfcard/treeshells.jpg
  5. ^ http://stuartcollection.ucsd.edu/StuartCollection/Finlay/orig.gif
  6. ^ http://stuartcollection.ucsd.edu/StuartCollection/Finlay.htm
  7. ^ a b c Johnson, Ken (31 March 2006). "Ian Hamilton Finlay, 80, Poet and Conceptual Artist, Dies". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). Retrieved 10 November 2006. 
  8. ^ McNay, Michael (29 March 2006). "Ian Hamilton Finlay". The Guardian (London: Guardian Newspapers Limited). Retrieved 10 November 2006. 
  9. ^ Finlay, Alec; Ian Hamilton Finlay (1996). The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts (Edinburgh: Polygon): 7.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. ^ http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=1394292004
  11. ^ Martell, Peter (5 December 2004). "Little Sparta goes a long way in poll on Scotland's greatest art". Scotland on Sunday (The Scotsman). Retrieved 17 November 2006. 
  12. ^ Gibbons, Fiachra (30 June 2003). "Penniless poet's vision that bloomed". The Guardian (London: Guardian News and Media Limited). Retrieved 17 November 2006. 
  13. ^ http://www.littlesparta.co.uk/
  14. ^ http://www.rbge.org.uk/rbge/web/wwd/rk.jsp
  15. ^ http://www.newarcadianpress.co.uk/
  16. ^ http://www.inglebygallery.com/
  17. ^ http://www.uppingtongardens.com/
  18. ^ The Times (28 March 2006). "Ian Hamilton Finlay: Scottish poet and artist who turned his Lanarkshire grounds into Little Sparta, a celebrated shrine to pacifism". Times Online (London: Times Newspapers Ltd). Retrieved 10 April 2007.  and Jones, Jonathan (10 April 2007). "Signs of the times". The Guardian (London: Guardian Newspapers Limited). Retrieved 10 April 2007. 
  19. ^ http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/turner-prize-1985/turner-prize-1985-artists-ian-hamilton-finlay
  20. ^ http://www.royalcaledonianhorticulturalsociety.org/
  21. ^ http://www.creativescotland.org.uk/ArtistDetails.aspx?ProjectId=34
  22. ^ The Little Sparta Trust (2006). "Ian Hamilton Finlay". Retrieved 10 December 2006. 
  23. ^ Finlay, Ian Hamilton (2006). "Printed works". Wild Hawthorn Press. Retrieved 10 November 2006. 
  24. ^ Finlay, Ian Hamilton (2006). "Tate Collection". Retrieved 10 November 2006. 
  25. ^ Finlay, Ian Hamilton (1995). Zdenek Felix & Pia Simig (eds.)., ed. Works in Europe 1972–1995 Werke in Europa. Werner Hannappel (photographer). Cantz Verlag. ISBN 3-89322-749-0. 
  26. ^ Peter Coates (n.d.). "Biography: Collaborations with Ian Hamilton Finlay". Retrieved 16 November 2006. 
  27. ^ a b The Trustees of Indiana University (n.d.). "IU Lilly Library". Retrieved 18 November 2006. 
  28. ^ a b Ingleby Gallery (n.d.). "Bookshop and Editions". Retrieved 18 November 2006. 


  • Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society (2006). "Awards". Retrieved 10 November 2006.