Ian Hamilton Finlay, CBE (28 October 1925 – 27 March 2006) was a Scottish poet, writer, artist and gardener. Born in Nassau, Bahamas his family moved back to Scotland. At the age of 13, with the outbreak of the Second World War, he was evacuated to family in the countryside. He was educated at Dollar Academy, in Clackmannanshire and later Glasgow School of Art. In 1942, he joined the British Army. He died in 2006 in Edinburgh.
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.
His first collection of poetry, The Dancers Inherit the Party, was published in 1960 by Migrant Press with a second edition published in 1962.
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, in his magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.
Finlay became notable as a poet, when reducing the monostich form to one word with his concrete poems in the 1960s. Repetition, imitation and tradition lay at the heart of Hamilton’s poetry, and exploring ‘ the juxtaposition of apparently opposite ideas’.
Later, Finlay 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 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. 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”.
The Little Sparta Trust plans to preserve Little Sparta for the nation by raising enough to pay for an ongoing maintenance fund. Ian Appleton, Stephen Bann, Stephen Blackmore,Patrick Eyres, Richard Ingleby, Ian Kennedy, Magnus Linklater, John Leighton, Duncan Macmillan, Victoria Miro, Paul Nesbitt, Jessie Sheeler and Ann Uppington are trustees.
Finlay’s 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 and the memento mori Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego. His 1973 screenprint of a tank camouflaged in a leaf pattern, Arcadia, referring to the Utopian Arcadia of poetry and art (another recurring theme), is described by the Tate as drawing “an ironic parallel between this idea of a natural paradise and the camouflage patterns on a tank”.
His use of Nazi imagery led to an accusation of neo-Nazi sympathies and anti-semitism. Finlay sued a Paris magazine which had made such accusations, and was awarded nominal damages of one franc. The stress of this situation brought about the separation between Finlay and his wife Sue.
Finlay also came into conflict with the 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.
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 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 in 2002, and the Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award in 2003. Awarded in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list in 2002, Finlay was a CBE.
Finlay’s work has been seen as austere, but also at times witty, or even darkly whimsical.