Ian Hamilton Finlay
Ian Hamilton Finlay was born to Scottish parents in the Bahamas, where his father allegedly ran alcohol to the United States. Finlay was sent back to Scotland at the age of six and, at the start of World War II, evacuated to Orkney. He attended art school in Glasgow but never completed his degree; instead, he served in the Non-Combatant and Service Corps until 1947, spending time in postwar Germany. After the war, he returned to Scotland and worked as a laborer and shepherd to support his burgeoning career as poet, short story writer, and artist.

Finlay’s first collections of writing include The Sea Bed and Other Stories (1958) and the poetry collection The Dancers Inherit the Party (1960). Finlay’s work began to be noticed by American poets such as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Lorine Niedecker—all of whom Finlay would publish in the magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (P.O.T.H.) Finlay also published Niedecker’s second book with Wild Hawthorn Press, the press he founded with Jessie McGuffie in 1961. Around this time, he entered into legal proceedings against Fulcrum Press in London; the press had published The Dancers Inherit the Party as a first edition, and Finlay sought to correct the “fraud on the public.” According to James Campbell in the Guardian, “This was an early assault in his ongoing culture wars.” Later actions by Finlay included battles with the Strathclyde Regional Council, which revolved around the tax status of Finlay’s property and, in the 1970s, his removal of works from shows sponsored by the Scottish Arts Council. According to Finlay, his disputes were ethical and political. In an interview with Jacket magazine, he noted, “What people remembered was that I had caused a lot of trouble to these institutions by asking them to stand up and speak a simple truth. But it was very instructive to me! This was when I first realised what culture is.”
In 1962, Finlay made contact with Brazilian concrete poets of the São Paulo Noigandres collective. P.O.T.H. began publishing the work of concrete poets such as Augusto de Campos and Pedro Xisto, and Finlay began experimenting with the page as a visual and graphic field. His work from this period includes such formally and semantically ambitious works as Standing Card 1-3 (1963–1965), the Canal Stripe series 3 & 4 (1964), sequences such as the Ocean Stripe 2–5 (1965–1967), and Autumn Poem (1966). He also began to set poems on posters in Le Circus (1964) or mount them on walls. Finally, Finlay began to embed and inscribe language in natural environments, a practice that led to Little Sparta, Finlay’s garden in the Pentland Hills of southern Scotland. He began the garden at an abandoned farm in 1966 as a “deliberate correction of the modern sculpture garden,” which attempted to revive the “Neoclassical tradition of the garden as a place provocative of poetic, philosophic and even political thought,” according to Prudence Carlson. As Little Sparta developed, his works became increasingly architectural and collaborative. Agoraphobia prevented Finlay from traveling to the locations where his work was being installed, but his work began to develop around clear thematic contents. According to Greg Thomas, his work at Little Sparta as well as installations such as Heroic Emblems (1977) and The Third Reich Revisited (1977) led from “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.” In the 1970s and 1980s, Finlay’s import as an artist began to be recognized. He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and won a series of high profile and prestigious international commissions, including the Improvement Garden for the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton, England, and the Fleur de l’Air Garden in France. Finlay also installed permanent exhibits in the Serpentine Gallery in London and in Hunter Square, Edinburgh.
Finlay’s honors and awards included honorary degrees or professorships from Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt, Glasgow, and Dundee Universities. He also received the Scottish Arts Council’s Creative Scotland Award and, in 2002, a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire . At the end of his life, as his agoraphobia waned, Finlay began to travel away from Little Sparta. He suffered a stroke in the early 2000s and died in Edinburgh in 2006. Finlay is now recognized as one of the 20th century’s most important artists. His work spans mediums and locations; frequently explores the inheritance of classical philosophy, revolutionary politics, and Western civilization; and continues to be both provocative and influential. In 2012, the Tate Britain ran a retrospective of some of Finlay’s pieces. Finlay’s son, Alec Finlay, edited Selections (2012), a collection of Finlay’s writings.
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