Ian Hamilton Finlay: The Sonnet is a Sewing Machine for the Monostitch

Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 30 March – 12 May 2007.

The Sonnet is a Sewing-Machine for the Monostich is the largest ever presentation of Finlay’s rarely seen neon works, which date back to the early seventies and run parallel to his better-known inscriptions on stone. In his essay to accompany the exhibition Stephen Bann has noted: ‘There can be no doubt that neon poems were an integral part of Finlay’s oeuvre, and embodied some of his earliest intuitions about extending his poetic ideas beyond the printed page, as objects in the world.’  

The exhibition comprises two distinct bodies of work – in the upper gallery, a collection of neon works first exhibited in 1993 at the Crawford Arts Centre, St Andrews, Scotland and in the lower gallery neon works and wall texts relating to the French Revolution. The ‘monostich’ of the exhibition’s title is a poem of one line, an uncommon form first widely used by the Russian poet Emmanual Lochac, who lived in France from 1894

Finlay’s neon works in the upper gallery cast a reminder that words can also function as images, being composed as if in the artist’s own hand. The brevity and verbal economy of the monostich compels and invites the viewer to impose their own interpretations on Finlay’s work, which can often be understood on several levels – a riddle for the viewer to unravel. Finlay’s simple, rural background is overlaid by his self-taught erudition – a voracious reader with an impressive personal library, Finlay discovered and took pleasure in a huge variety of historical figures, events and facts little known by others, and delighted in incorporating them in his work. The shortest of his neons, ‘parheliacal marble’ amply illustrates this, with his use of the unusual ‘parheliacal’ (the formal adjective derived from the Greek, describing sun dogs, the luminous spots in clouds caused by the sun’s refraction through ice crystals). Juxtaposed with marble, the viewer is invited to imagine the effect as a marble statue shining in the Greek sun. 

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Ian Hamilton Finlay: L’Idylle des Cerises

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 29 July 2005 – 17 September 2005

‘This exhibition marked the 80th birthday of one of Scotland’s greatest artists, Ian Hamilton Finlay. For the first time, Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Gardens joined forces with Ingleby Gallery to stage 2 major exhibitions of Finlay’s work. These, together with an exhibition curated by Ingleby Gallery at the Scottish Poetry Library of rare early prints from Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press, presented a long-awaited insight into the work of a man now widely and internationally acclaimed as one of the leading artists of his generation.

Ingleby Gallery’s exhibition, L’IDYLLE DES CERISES, centred around a proposal commissioned for the gallery garden conceived by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Pia Maria Simig (in collaboration with Peter Coates) relating to the eponymous text by J.J Rousseau. Preparatory drawings and sculptural maquettes were presented alongside two other groups of works: one devoted to previously unseen sculptures relating to the French Revolution, a favourite subject of Finlay’s, and another celebrating his many garden proposals on Revolutionary themes.’

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Ian Hamilton Finlay: Idylls and Interventions

Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 27 June – 2 August 2003.
‘Idylls and Interventions brings together a number of Finlay’s seminal series of prints along with a major new work and recent sculptures. The exhibition is conceived by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Pia Maria Simig.

Ian Hamilton Finlay is principally a poet – a Modernist artist who has consistently exploited nature, literature and the potency of words in his art. For almost forty years, he has formed his works using philosophical texts, myths, characters and images from the past to make enigmatic juxtapositions and in so doing new thoughts. In 1961 he founded the Wild Hawthorn Press with Jessie McGuffie and within a few years had established himself internationally as Britain’s foremost concrete poet. His publications continue to play an important role in the dissemination of his work as a visual artist. As a sculptor, he has worked collaboratively in a wide range of materials, having his concepts executed as stone-carvings, as constructed objects and neon lighting. Since the mid sixties Finlay has lived and worked at Stonypath, south-west of Edinburgh, where he has transformed the surrounding rural acres into a unique garden and life’s work; Little Sparta.’

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Ian Hamilton Finlay and the Wild Hawthorn Press: 1958 – 1991

Tate Gallery, Liverpool, 14 December 1991 – 19 January 1992.

‘This is an exhibition mainly of printed works, but one of the first things the visitor will notice is the variety of the material displayed. There are prints, magazines, booklets, folders and cards, hardly any two of which are the same shape or size. On almost all of them Ian Hamilton Finlay has collaborated with other artists – painters, typographers, calligraphers and others – resulting in further variety. And the works take in such subjects as fishing, gardening, football, art history, the French Revolution, classical Greece and World War Two, often making surprisingly apt links between them. As Finlay put it recently, ‘why should one keep one’s interests apart?’

Ian Hamilton Finlay is essentially a poet and designer, rather than an artist in the conventional sense of the word, that is someone fabricating paintings or sculptures. He first came to prominence in the 1960s, as part of the international Concrete Poetry movement. The term Concrete Poetry was coined by a Swiss poet, Eugen Gomringer. It was used to describe a poem which was ‘an object to be seen and used … a reality in itself and not a poem about something or other.

Finlay is a conceptual artist, that is, an artist who deals with ideas. As such he is concerned with presenting these ideas in the most appropriate form, whether as a book, a print or a sculpture. His use of collaborators has given his work a social or collective voice: rather than it expressing the feelings of a single individual, it is coloured by the interpretative efforts of the many artists and craftsmen he has worked with.’

Further information is available here.


Ring of Waves

David Nolan Gallery, New York, 7 May – 28 June, 2013.

‘David Nolan Gallery is pleased to present its 8th exhibition of work by the celebrated Scottish artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006). On view from May 8th until June 22nd, the exhibition focuses on an array of the artist’s “maritime” works. The sea, together with the vessels that venture upon and qualifiedly domesticate it, is a theme that has coursed through Finlay’s work since his earliest poems, cards and artist’s books of the 1950s and ‘60s. The works gathered here span five decades.

Among Finlay’s abiding preoccupations is the relationship between written language and image, between a text (a word, a phrase, a bit of signage) and its both literal and figurative contexts. Finlay, who began as a writer, experimented ceaselessly with ways of generating, inflecting and provocatively destabilizing verbal meaning through the manipulation of written language’s physical properties: i.e, through the often witty play with typography, color, composition, scale, materials. By the early 1960s, Finlay had gained a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost practitioners of Concrete Poetry, yet he had also become increasingly interested in securing for his “poems” greater gravitas, in equipping them with both an irresistible physical presence and a far-reaching metaphoric range. Finlay’s early love for making toy boat and plane models provided a key, and his poems – his poems’ language – moved from the page onto wood, glass, plexiglass, tile, metal, stone and eventually onto (and into) the landscape, or Nature, itself. (Finlay’s famous garden Little Sparta, a life work, can be perceived as one sustained, sensuous, “concrete” poem.) The allusive range of Finlay’s poems, or “poem-objects,” likewise stretched outward from the immediate here and now to the farthest edge of the ocean’s or heaven’s vastness and, temporally, to the earliest nature philosophy of the Pre-Socratic Greeks. (One of the Ship’s Bells exhibited here makes tongue-in-cheek reference to the Pre-Socratic concept of a harmony of opposites).’ 

Further information is available here.


Ian Hamilton Finlay: Definitions

Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 5 May – 11 June 2011.

‘Victoria Miro Gallery is delighted to present a unique juxtaposition of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sculpture and a series of text works, termed Definitions. These Definitions present Finlay’s own interpretations of the meanings of words, and in conjunction with related sculptural works, display Finlay’s adroitness in exploring the written word’s materiality.  

Ian Hamilton Finlay was at heart a poet, whose prose, rooted in the concrete poetry movement, finds its sublime presentation within the visual field. Informed by numerous sources, his work operates within a context of literature, mythology and classicism. Finlay’s ongoing endeavour throughout his lifetime of practice was to expand, liberate and challenge our understanding and perception of the written word, its limitations and its role in unspoken, communicative and aesthetic exchange. He achieved this through poetry rendered in many materials and forms. 

Finlay’s adept use of syntax and narrative configuration weaved refined distinctions with a lyrical philosophy. His skill lay in his unique ability to break down complex ideas into coherent single words and short phrases, infused with Finlay’s characteristic wit and, often, wry humour.

This exhibition reveals how Finlay plays with our presuppositions and undermines our very understanding of language. His Definitions are interspersed at considered at precisely choreographed points through the exhibition, initiating a narrative journey for the visitor through the consideration of text and object. No visitor’s reading shall be the same, as these open-ended propositions allow for endless interpretations of work and meaning.  The intricate and multi-layered relationships established between language, text, object and visitor are integral to an enduring search for the pure, which prevailed within Finlay’s practice.’

Further information is available here.


Ian Hamilton Finlay: 1789 1794

Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 10 June – 31 July 2015.

The French Revolution proved a rich subject for Finlay; he first received international attention for his guillotine installation A View to the Temple at Documenta 8 in Kassel in 1987 and thereafter the guillotine became one of the most enduring elements of his iconography.

For the artist the Revolution represented a moment of enormous political and aesthetic rupture and signalled a great moral, as well as political, leap. The period bookended by the dates in the title of this exhibition correspond with the establishment of the National Assembly and the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and the Thermidorian Reaction in 1794, which saw the arrest and execution of several of the key members of the Jacobin forces, including Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (1767-1794). This period thus encompasses extraordinary advances in secular democracy and social progress and also great bloodshed and unrest: the Enlightenment and the guillotine.’

Further information is available here.



Ian Hamilton Finlay: Early Works (1958 – 1970)

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 11 October – 26 November, 2016.

‘It is exactly fifty years since Ian Hamilton Finlay moved to Stonypath, the little farm deep in the Pentland Hills which became Little Sparta, one of the finest artist-gardens of all time and one of Scotland’s greatest 20th century artworks.

Finlay arrived at Stonypath in the early days of October 1966 with his wife Sue and their six month old son Alec. A daughter Ailie was born soon after and in the years that followed Ian and Sue transformed their bleak surroundings into a poet’s garden in the classical style. He the poet-artist, and she the gardener, tending the poems, as Sue put it, in the ever-changing landscape.

The years immediately before and after this move to Stonypath represent one of the richest seams of Finlay’s career – a flourishing in which the concrete poetry that had begun to make his name found an even more concrete form as sculptures and poem-objects in the garden.

In recognition of this anniversary, and also marking ten years since Ian Hamilton Finlay’s death, we are pleased to present a small exhibition centred around the year 1966, and extending a few years either side to include some of Finlay’s seminal early works.’

Further information is available here.


Ian Hamilton Finlay – Twilight Remembers

Installation view of the solo exhibition Twilight Remembers Ingleby Gallery (2 August – 27 October 2012)

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 2 August – 27 October, 2012.

‘For Edinburgh Art Festival 2012 Ingleby Gallery present a major exhibition by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925 – 2006).

Drawing on the artist’s work in many mediums and across several decades, the exhibition celebrates one of Scotland’s most important 20th-century artists.

The exhibition begins with a re-discovered moment of genius by the late Ian Hamilton Finlay. Carrier Strike (1977) is a classic Finlayesque clash of the heroic and the domestic: in this case an epic air/sea battle played out on the surface of an ironing board. Photographed by Carl Heideken and set to music by John Purser, the ironing board becomes an aircraft carrier, surrounded by destroyer irons, and small model planes amongst cotton wool clouds. Like all Finlay’s best work, the ideas are layered and delivered with gentle humour.

Three boulders, carved with the names of Japanese war planes become stepping stones from the war- zone of Carrier Strike to the garden works that dominate the rest of the exhibition, recalling the most familiar of Finlay’s ‘detached sentences on gardening’ that Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.

The garden, gardening, and specifically man’s relationship with and against nature, provided the backdrop for Finlay’s life’s work. At the heart of this exhibition are a group of garden works that turn the gallery into a colony of Little Sparta, the classical garden and self-styled ‘Raspberry Republic’ that Finlay built over 40 years and which cradled so many of his artistic and philosophical beliefs. Carved stones, garden stiles, brick paths and bronze spades are marshalled into the service of Finlay’s ideas, interwoven with reference to the classical world, the French revolution, the sea and the world at war.

This summer’s Ingleby Gallery exhibition will be the first of several Finlay celebrations for 2012; followed most notably by a major presentation of Finlay’s work in Brazil, at the São Paulo Biennale in September, and in London at Tate Britain in November.’

Further information is available here.



Ian Hamilton Finlay

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 19 June – 25 July 2009

‘A major exhibition of sculpture and wall paintings from the estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay, one of the leading conceptual artists of the twentieth century and one of Scotland’s most original artists of all time.

The exhibition coincides with the opening of Hortus Conclusus, Finlay’s last major work for Little Sparta, the garden at Stonypath in the Pentland Hills where he lived and worked for 40 years. Little Sparta is widely, and rightly, understood to be one of the key gardens to have been made in this country in the last 100 years and one of the greatest ever of all Scottish artworks.

The exhibition also coincides with a celebration of concrete poetry at the ICA in London entitled: Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (17 June – 23 August). This show has Finlay’s early work at its core, and takes its title from the poetry periodical he published between 1962 and 1968.

This show looks at several of the key themes that occupied Finlay’s thinking over 50 years. On the ground floor there is a group of works exploring boats and the sea (a subject to which Finlay often returned as an expression of man’s inability to impose order on natural chaos).

In the “editions” area on the ground floor of the gallery, the vitrines have been dedicated to a display of archive works from the early days of the Wild Hawthorn Press, and Finlay’s endeavours as a publisher and poet.

Upstairs, in the main gallery, the theme is Revolution. The main gallery is dominated by a wall painting of Apollo and Daphne (recalling Ovid’s descripton of the mythical chase driven equally by love and fear, a metaphor in Finlay’s hand for Saint-Just’s pursuit of the republic) and three glass towering guillotines, each emblazoned with a single word, which together form a poetic and wistful twist on the revolutionary cry: LIBERTY EQUALITY ETERNITY.’

Further information is available here.