Finlay, Ian Hamilton

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Finlay, Ian Hamilton

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The art of Ian Hamilton Finlay is unusual for encompassing a variety of different media - poetry, philosophy, history, gardening and landscape design amongst others. His work assumed concrete form in cards, books, prints, inscribed stone or wood sculptures, room installations and fully realised garden environments.

Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in the Bahamas of Scottish parents in 1925. He was called up in 1944 and served in the Army for three years. Although he attended Glasgow School of Art from 1941-1942, he did not complete his Diploma and considered himself primarily to be a writer — indeed throughout his career referred to himself as a poet rather than an artist.

After the war, he lived in Perthshire, making a precarious living by writing: he published a volume of poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party, and had several scripts broadcast by the BBC. In 1966 he moved with his wife to a property at Stonypath in rural Lanarkshire, with extensive grounds which would eventually come to be known as Little Sparta. Here he began to work on the garden which became central to his life’s work.

Though his work is usually Classical in form, sometimes with surreal overtones, Finlay never claimed any skill as a craftsman employing assistants who were always fully credited and treated as collaborators. Finlay insisted upon precise execution and first-rate technical qualities in any work associated with his name, and to achieve this he chose to work with top calligraphers and carvers, though there was never any doubt that the concept and design were entirely his own.

Despite devoting his life and art to the pacifist cause, Finlay was famously prone to confrontation — with everyone from his local council in Scotland and the various British Arts Councils to the French Government. His running battles with Strathclyde Regional Council over whether he should pay commercial rates on a ruined cow byre in his grounds, converted into what the council claimed was a commercial gallery while in his eyes it was a garden temple, made news in a way that hardly any art exhibition could ever hope to.

A severe sufferer from agoraphobia, Finlay was virtually confined to Little Sparta for more than 20 years, and concentrated much of his creative energy on its garden, which is tightly organised with inscribed stones, monuments and whole buildings, many reflecting, by way of myth and legend, on the subject of war

Despite bouts of serious illness he remained enormously productive in a great variety of media. In 1981 he co-founded, with Jessie McGuffie, the Wild Hawthorn Press, as an outlet for contemporary poetry, but gradually it came to concentrate almost exclusively on his enormous output of poems and texts, photographs and prints.

He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1985, and appointed CBE in 2002.


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