Ian Hamilton Finlay

Ian Hamilton Finlay with Pia Maria Simig and Leslie Edge, Urn Column, wall painting,1986 / 2016.

The art of Ian Hamilton Finlay is unusual for encompassing a variety of different media and discourses. Poetry, philosophy, history, gardening and landscape design are among the genres of expression through which his work moves, and his activities have assumed form in cards, books, prints, inscribed stone or wood sculptures, room installations and fully realised garden environments.

Common to all of Finlay’s production is the inscription of language – words, invented or borrowed phrases and other semiotic devices – onto real objects and thus into the world. That language inhabits, for Finlay, a material or real dimension gives rise to the two seemingly opposed but signal characteristics of his work.

On the one hand, Finlay has always been acutely sensitive to the formalist concerns (colour, shape, scale, texture, composition) of literary and artistic modernism. On the other hand, a committed poet and student of classical philosophy, he has also always recognised the power of language and art to shape our perceptions of the world and even incite us to action.

The movement of words and language into the world has been most fully realised by Finlay in his now famous garden, Little Sparta, set in the windswept Pentland Hills of southern Scotland. Begun in 1966 when Finlay relocated with his family to the site, an abandoned farm, Little Sparta is a deliberate correction of the modern sculpture garden through its maker’s revisiting the Neoclassical tradition of the garden as a place provocative of poetic, philosophic and even political thought. (Rather than a ‘retreat’, Finlay described it as an ‘attack’).

At the heart of all the varied materials and forms through which Finlay’s invention flows are his prints, cards, booklets and proposals. These works bear an especially intimate connection to Finlay’s activity as a poet. Meaning, in the purely non-literal or figurative sense, is more obvious as such in Finlay’s paper works than in his three-dimensional pieces which often have an irresistible physical presence. This meaning, which can be suggestively open-ended, is arrived at through metaphor – through the coupling, on a single page, of unlike terms which are brought to behave as shifting, multivalent ‘pointers’.

Among Finlay’s predominant themes are the relation between Nature and Culture; the Sea as an instance of Nature’s sheer power and problematic beauty; (Neo)Classicism, with its attendant aesthetics, philosophy and politics, as the defining type of Western culture; and the French Revolution as an especially rich instance of Neoclassical thought and forms married to pastoral (gardening) imagery.

Prudence Carlson


Ian Hamilton Finlay 28 October 1925 – 27 March 2006 – Scottish sculptor, graphic artist and poet. He briefly attended Glasgow School of Art and first made his reputation as a writer, publishing short stories and plays in the 1950s. 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 also played an important role in the initial dissemination of his work as a visual artist. As a sculptor, he has worked collaboratively in a wide range of materials, having his designs executed as stone-carvings, as constructed objects and even in the form of neon lighting.

In 1966 Finlay and his wife, Sue, moved to the hillside farm of Stonypath, south-west of Edinburgh, and began to transform the surrounding acres into a unique garden, which he named Little Sparta. He revived the traditional notion of the poet’s garden, arranging ponds, trees and vegetation to provide a responsive environment for sundials, inscriptions, columns and garden temples. As the proponent of a rigorous classicism and as the defender of Little Sparta against the intrusions of local bureaucracy, he insisted on the role of the artist as a moralist who comments sharply on cultural affairs. The esteem won by Finlay’s artistic stance and style is attested by many important large-scale projects undertaken throughout the world. The ‘Sacred Grove’, created between 1980 and 1982 at the heart of the Kröller-Müller Sculpture Park, Otterlo, is one of the most outstanding examples of Finlay’s work outside Little Sparta.