Ian Hamilton Finlay

Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1925. As a child he was brought to Scotland, where he attended boarding school. His education ended at the age of thirteen, when at the outbreak of war he was evacuated to the Orkney Islands.

A short spell at art school in Glasgow was followed by a period in London before Finlay joined the army in 1942. At the end of the war, he worked as a shepherd, studied philosophy, and began to write short stories and plays, some of which were broadcast by the BBC.

Much of Finlay's work has been made in collaboration with other artists and with artisans, and draws on his experience of rural life and the sea. His studies of classicism and ancient philosophers have enriched his work immeasurably. Much of his work was inspired by his interest in poetry, culminating in the publication of Rapel in 1963. He was also nominated for the Turner Prize in 1985.

At Stonypath, near Edinburgh, his home since 1966, Finlay developed the garden to feature his concrete poetry and sculpture. Although he has gained a considerable international reputation through numerous exhibitions abroad, Ian Hamilton Finlay never travelled far away from his home. He was awarded a CBE in 2002 and passed away at his home in Edinburgh in 2006.

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 concrete form in cards, books, prints, inscribed stone or wood sculptures, room installations and fully realised garden environments. Common to all of Finlay's diverse 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.

Finlay's early experiments with concrete poetry were acutely sensitive to the formalist concerns (colour, shape, scale, texture, composition) of literary and artistic modernism. Finlay, a committed poet and student of classical philosophy, has also always recognised the power of language and art to shape our perceptions of the world and even to incite us to action. Fused in his work is thus a certain formalist purity and an insistent polemical edge, "the terse economy of concrete poetry and the elegant [and speaking] simplicity of the classical inscription." Formalist devices are themselves shown to be never without meaning, and they are ingeniously deployed by Finlay to arm his works with an ever more evocative content.


Ian Hamilton Finlay, The World has been Empty Since the Romans, 1985

Ian Hamilton Finlay


CASS Artworks by Ian Hamilton Finlay