Ian Hamilton Finlay & His Work

Ian Hamilton Finlay in front of ‘das gepflügte Land – the fluted land.’ (Image, Andrew Lawson)

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925 – 2006) was a poet, writer, visual artist and gardener. He is now internationally recognised for his work in each of these art forms.

Finlay was born in Nassau, the Bahamas, in 1925. Finlay’s father bootlegged alcohol from Nassau into the USA until the repeal of prohibition laws in 1933, when he and Finlay’s mother unsuccessfully attempted to start an orange-growing business in Florida, before returning to Scotland in straitened circumstances. Finlay himself had been sent to Scotland at the age of six, boarding first at Larchfield School near Helensburgh, then Dollar Academy.

He spent the years 1943–45 between Glasgow, where he attended, or failed to attend, art school and befriended W.S. Graham, and London, where he met the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. Undertaking national service with the Non-Combatant and Service Corps between 1944 and 1947, he travelled to post-Nazi Germany. He was adopted as an accolyte by Hugh MacDiarmid, who would be best man at his wedding in 1947, before they accrimoniously fell out in the early 1960s.

By 1948 Finlay was living in rural Perthshire, at Drum-Na Keil near Comrie with his wife Marion. He spent the next eight years as an impoverished writer and painter, periodically publishing short stories in the Glasgow Herald and the Scottish Angler  – his stories were often about fishing – while earning money from shepherding and labouring. He briefly lived on Rousay, one of the Orkney Islands, during the winter of 1955-56; this location became a source of inspiration for the symbolic landscapes depicted in much of his later work. Finlay’s short stories describe rural Scottish life while displaying stylistic affinities with Russian and Scandinavian writers such as Turgenev, Chekhov and Strindberg. Throughout his career, Finlay would seek understandings of a ‘Northern’ sensibility distinct from Scots or Gaelic culture.

From 1956 onwards Finlay was largely based in Edinburgh, though he travelled to Rousay again in Spring 1959. The mid-1950s to early 1960s were punctuated by bouts of nervous illness: Finlay’s agoraphobia set in, only to leave him in the mid-1990s. A book of short stories, The Sea Bed and Other Stories, appeared in 1958, followed by a collection of comic, melancholy lyric poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party, published in autumn 1960 by Gael Turnbull’s transatlantic Migrant Press. This, along with Finlay’s publication in the last two issues of Turnbull’s Migrant magazine, brought him to the attention of American poets such as Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley and Cid Corman, and they to his.

‘The Blue and Brown Poems’, 1968, set of 12 poem-prints.

In spring 1961, Finlay set up the Wild Hawthorn Press with his partner Jessie McGuffie, partly to publish the work of undervalued and international poets. Wild Hawthorn produced Finlay’s demotic Scots reincarnation sequence Glasgow Beasts an a Burd in September 1961, followed by Lorine Niedecker’s My Friend Tree (1961), Louis Zukofsky’s 16 Once Published (1962), and Gael Turnbull’s A Very Particular Hill (1963). The books were illustrated with woodcut prints, reflecting Finlay’s burgeoning visual-literary sensibility. The following spring (1962), he launched the periodical Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (P.O.T.H), printing rural Scottish lyrics by George Mackay Brown alongside contemporary international poets such Anselm Hollo and Shimpei Kusano, first-wave European avant-gardists such as Mayakovsky and Apollinaire, and American neo-objectivists such as Niedecker.

In late 1962, the course of Finlay’s career was radically shifted by his contact, via Edwin Morgan, with the concrete poets of São Paulo’s Noigandres collective. By spring 1963, Finlay had featured the concrete poets Augusto de Campos, Pedro Xisto and Marcelo Moura in the sixth issue of P.O.T.H., edited the sound poetry pamphlet Fishsheet and published his first collection of concrete poems Rapel: Ten Fauve and Suprematist Poems. Wild Hawthorn went on to produce ‘poem-prints’ by European and South American concretists, a new development within the genre, while P.O.T.H., though not exclusively documenting concrete poetry, itself became, through its increasingly ambitious visual layouts, an exploration of the graphic potential of the printed page.

Finlay himself entered into a stage of prolific creation, producing a string of increasingly formally ambitious, semantically concise poems which retained the rustic focus on boats, burns and fishes of his short stories and conventional verse: the Standing Card 1-3 series (1963 – 1965); graphic poem booklets such as Canal Stripe 3 & 4 (1964), the Ocean Stripe 2-5 sequence(1965-7) and Autumn Poem (1966); poems set on posters such as Le Circus (1964) or in wall-mounted cork lettering, including a version of ‘Acrobats’ (1965); sandblasted glass pieces such as Wave/Rock (1966); sculptural text works such as 1967-8’s Boat Names and Numbers series, and finally, works set into the natural landscape.

Stonypath, early 1970s. Photography and handwritten text, Richard Demarco.

These later forms were made possible by Finlay’s relocation, with his new partner Sue, from Edinburgh to various rural farmsteads from spring 1965 onwards: first Gledfield Farmhouse in Ardgay, then Stonypath, Dunsyre, in September 1966, after spending summer 1966 in a smaller dwelling in Coaltown of Callange, Fife.

Sue has written evocatively of the early days at Stonypath, where she played a pivotal role as creative collaborator. 

“Ian and I and our baby son Alec were living in a tiny cottage in Fife in the summer of 1966. The cottage had no running water – but a well in the garden – and no electricity – but a tiny windmill that powered two torch bulbs in the ceiling. There was a coal-fired range for cooking. The garden was full of vegetables and fruit and the summer was idyllic. But autumn came and it was chilly. My parents wrote to me – no telephone – that the farmhouse Stonypath had become vacant – did I want to come and see if we would like to move there? My father – Simon Macdonald Lockhart – had inherited the Estate of Lee and Carnwath after the war.

I got a bus and train and another bus and we drove up the track to see the house. It seemed perfect. So we moved. My mother, Catriona, left a steak pie in the larder for us. 

Later my father installed a wood burning stove in the kitchen and fitted cupboards and desk for the Wild Hawthorn Press in the living room.

As I remember it Ian started digging out the midden (which was in the middle of the farmyard) that very autumn – to make a pond. I was somewhat nervous of a pond at the back door. Would we get flooded?

We were living on my small allowance and Ian’s “sickness benefit” – he suffered from severe agoraphobia at the time but quite soon – with the help of grants from the Scottish Arts Council – as it was then – Ian started making work with different collaborators in stone, neon and glass. We cleaned out the dairy – scrubbing the stone floors and the stone shelving and turned it into a small gallery – the little loft above was used to display prints.

Meantime, I began digging borders in the front garden. It was empty except for two rows of currant bushes and some lilac bushes and the old Ash tree. We knew nothing about gardening but my mother brought us plants from her garden and slowly I began to learn and in time Ian saw the garden as another place to display his works in stone and wood.

In 1967, Ian became ill. He had a heart attack and was in hospital for a while. At the same time, our daughter Aileen was born. Difficult time. When Ian came home, he was told to take care and not stress himself. He decided to make model boats in the little workshed attached to the barn. I shopped for balsa wood and magazines with plans for fishing boats, sailing boats and even submarines. These were then sailed on the pond.

Gradually, the garden took shape – over years. I learnt about plants and planting. Ian found new collaborators to make the works. Little Sparta was created – one turf at a time.”

After Finlay suffered a heart attack in 1967, Wild Hawthorn scaled back its operations, exclusively publishing his own work.

Over this same period, Finlay’s work moved away from conventional modes of concrete practice. By the late 1960s he was identifying it with architecture, 18th-century landscape gardeners such as Shenstone and Pope, and classical philosophy over avant-garde poetics. His early 1970s sundial epigraphs – some text versions are included in Stonechats (1967) – reflect these new stylistic and ethical co-ordinates. Over the next three decades Finlay and Sue, by this time his wife, built up the garden and grounds of Stonypath into the interactive poetic landscape Little Sparta (so christened in the late 1970s), the richest manifestation of Finlay’s aesthetic sensibility. Little Sparta is populated by sculptural or landscape-based poems generally built up around a core linguistic phrase, some taken from earlier text bound poems.

The garden’s aesthetic and ethical value was gradually nuanced by the installation of works reflecting evolving thematic concerns – from, for example, classical notions of culture, society and warfare in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the interaction of these ideas with the French Revolution, Nazism and modern art in the late 1970s and 1980s – around older works which were left in place. From the early 1970s onwards Finlay’s ‘bibliography’ or catalogue raisonné  becomes too vast and complex to relay, but projects such as Heroic Emblems (1977) and The Third Reich Revisited (1977) reflect such developments.  From 1974 onwards Finlay also began implementing a monumental project for the Max Planck Institute Garden in Stuttgart, while a 1977 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London consolidated his status as an internationally significant artist.

In 1978 the touring leg of this exhibition was withdrawn from the Scottish Arts Council’s Charlotte Square Gallery in Edinburgh, the first of several publically staged maneuvres through which Finlay pitted his classical or Jacobin morality against what he saw as the morally and intellectually bankrupt secular state. Finlay remarked in 1983 that ‘the absence of the works was a clearer statement of their content’ (Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer). Consideration of these ‘battles’– presaged in 1969 by a fracas with the independent press Fulcrum over their wrongly titled ‘first edition’ of The Dancers Inherit the Party, resulting in the press’s bankrupting through legal fees – would perhaps disproportionately dominate Finlay’s media reception in later decades. However, they reflect his increasing sense of his relationship to modern culture as ethical and political rather than purely artistic.

‘The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future – Saint Just’, 1983.

In 1980, after Finlay converted a gallery on his grounds into a temple, Strathclyde Regional Council refused him the tax rates granted to religious buildings. The Finlays refused the prescribed rates, resulting in the seizure of works from the temple in spring 1983, and the recriminatory removal of some of Finlay’s stone reliefs from the Scottsh Arts Council’s Edinburgh headquarters by his supporters the ‘Saint-Just Vigilantes’ in 1984. At the height of the conflict, in August 1983, Finlay exhibited a series of stone slabs bearing an epigraph from the French Revolutionary Saint-Just – The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future – at the Hayward Gallery’s Sculpture Show. Now set into a rising fold of land at the rear of Little Sparta, framing the Pentland Hills beyond, this work is one of the most striking monuments to Finlay’s sometimes disconcertingly unwavering ethical and artistic commitment. Versions have also been installed in the grounds of the Cartier Institute in Paris and the Parc Güell, Barcelona.

More generally, conflict proved fruitful both as a catalyst for, and extension of, Finlay’s artistic projects. He began publishing polemical pieces directly referring to events and individuals involved in his battles, as he had done after the Fulcrum affair, often using the rhetorical form of the aphorism, the proposal or the denouncement, under the Wild Hawthorn pseudonym ‘Committee of Public Safety, Little Sparta’: another French Revolution reference.

  »Certain gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.«

In the 1980s Finlay’s international visibility increased exponentially. Between 1984 and 1985 alone he exhibited in Edinburgh, Basel, Australia, Southampton, Paris, Geneva and Holland, made successul proposals for installations at the Espace Rameau-Chapelle Sainte Marie in Nevers, France, the Villa Celle in Italy, and the Maritime Village in Swansea, and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. In April 1987 the French Government commissioned him to submit a proposal for a garden at Versailles marking the bicentennial of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Unfortunately, sections of the French Press had denounced the work Osso displayed in Paris earlier that year, in which the double lightning bolt logo of the Nazi SS is permuted into the title word, Italian for ‘bone’, as neo-fascist. The French Government dismissed the claims but the scandal grew, partly due to Finlay’s ex-collaborator Jonathan Hirschfeld circulating letters in which Finlay had made ‘anti-semitic’ remarks, and the commission was withdrawn in 1988. At best, Finlay’s Third Reich poems interrogate with unflinching lucidity the power of the visual icon as an ideological lodestar in 20th-century culture, and the dialectical interplay of civilisation and violence.

Notwithstanding the emotionally draining effect of such conflicts – out of which large amounts of new work were born –  throughout the 1990s Finlay’s rate of publication and exhibition remained prolific, though by this stage his thematic co-ordinates were largely set in place. Two of the most noteworthy achievements from the last decade and a half of Finlay’s life are the Improvement Garden, permanently installed at the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton, South London, and the private Fleur de L’Air Garden in the Provence, France. He installed permanent exhibits in locations including the Serpentine Gallery, London, and Hunter Square, Edinburgh.
In the last years of his life Finlay began to travel outside the grounds of Little Sparta for the first time since the mid 1960s. He suffered a stroke early in the 2000s, and died on 27 March 2006 in a nursing home in Edinburgh.

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

Finlay was awarded honorary degrees or professorships from Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt, Glasgow and Dundee Universities, the SAC’s Creative Scotland Award, and a CBE in 2002. His work had received a steady stream of critical attention since the mid-1960s and by the time of his death was recognised as a major contribution to modern art, in part because its persistent affirmation of the fundamental values of Western civilisation, in particular those inherited from ancient Greece and Rome, stands in such stark contrast to the formal and moral critique to which 20th-century Western art subjected such values. The way in which Finlay provokes the reader-viewer’s judgement must itself be admired, as must Finlay’s steadfast commitment to his particular vision of redemption. 


The above text is extracted from a biographical overview of Finlay written by Greg Thomas (British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Edinburgh) and commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library.