Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925-2006

Art Monthly, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925-2006


Ian Hamilton Finlay, the poet, publisher, sculptor and gardener died on March 27. He attended Glasgow College of Art before being called up for war service, after the war he worked as a shepherd on the Orkneys where he dreamed of a 'visionary happiness in discoursing with classically clad philosophers in a kind of bright green-grassed grove'. It was at this time that he first started to write seriously--short stories for the Glasgow Herald in the main --although his first book of poetry was not published until 1960. Though it was highly regarded by American poets, such as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, it was virtually ignored by the Scottish poetry establishment in thrall to the calculated Scottishness of Hugh Mac-Diarmid. In 1961 Finlay co-founded the Wild Hawthorn Press, initially to publish the work of his peers as well as his own work, but within a few years it became, with the help of fully acknowledged collaborators, the vehicle solely for his own prolific printed and editioned output in the form of poem cards, poster prints, pamphlets, books and small objects. If the Wild Hawthorn Press was the means whereby much of his work as a poet has been disseminated, the garden of his home since 1966 in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh became the focus for his move from concrete poetry to a form of environmental poetry through which he elaborated on his major subject: the clash between nature and culture, the wild and the cultivated.

His garden at Little Sparta (named in contrast to nearby Edinburgh, the 'Athens of the North', and in recognition in 1983 of his ongoing battles with the Scottish Arts Council) defines the nature of Finlay's art. The visitor, walking down its pathways is continuously ambushed by the evocative positioning of inscribed words, neoclassical architectural elements or sculptures conveying war and terror. For Finlay gardens were privileged places, and Little Sparta, consistently transformed over almost 40 years, was the realisation of an idealised space of radical thought. For Finlay nature is shaped by culture, an idyll coloured by terror, and accordingly he developed an iconography drawn as much from the mechanisms of modern warfare, Nazi insignia, the French Revolution and the philosophy of Saint-Just, as from reflections on Ovid's Metamorphoses, pre-Socratic philosophy, Poussin or Cubism. …

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