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Finlay, Ian Hamilton

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) was born in the Bahamas to Scottish parents, who returned to Scotland when he was a child. He attended Glasgow School of Art during the early years of WW2 and was a fellow student with Margot Sandeman (1922-2009), painter and regular visitor to Arran. Their friendship would lead to artistic collaboration throughout their lives.


Undertaking national service between 1944 and 1947, Finlay travelled to post-war Germany. Hugh MacDiarmid (poet, essayist) would be best man at his wedding in 1947, a friendship which lasted until they acrimoniously fell out in the early 1960s. 

By 1948 Finlay was living in rural Perthshire with his wife Marion. He spent the next eight years as an impoverished writer and painter, periodically publishing short stories in the Glasgow Herald and the Scottish Angler  – his stories were often about fishing – while earning money from shepherding and labouring. He briefly lived on Rousay, one of the Orkney Islands, during the winter of 1955-56; this location became a source of inspiration for the symbolic landscapes depicted in much of his later work. The mid- 1950s to early 1960s were punctuated by bouts of nervous illness: Finlay’s agoraphobia set in, only to leave him in the mid-1990s.


During the 1960s Finlay called on Sandeman's draughtsmanship to illustrate Poor.Old.Tired.Horse, his poetry periodical, for which Sandeman produced line drawings (1965). 

She subsequently illustrated several publications from his Wild Hawthorn Press, including Fishing News News, Peterhead Fragments, Rhymes for Lemons and other works. In late 1962, the course of Finlay’s career was radically shifted by his contact with the concrete poets of São Paulo’s Noigandres collective. Wild Hawthorn went on to produce ‘poem-prints’ by European and South American concretists. Finlay’s concrete poetry began on the page but then moved increasingly towards three dimensional figuration and afterwards to site-specific art in the creation of his sculpture garden at Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. The five-acre garden also includes more conventional sculptures and two garden temples. In December 2004, in a poll conducted by Scotland on Sunday, a panel of fifty artists, gallery directors and arts professionals voted Little Sparta to be the most important work of Scottish art.


During the seventies and eighties, working from her bothy at High Corrie on the east side of the island of Arran, Sandeman collaborated again with Finlay on a series of still life paintings using simple objects - jugs, candles, shells - which carry texts selected by him. The texts were later published as A Concise Classical Dictionary (Wild Hawthorn Press 1988). Within the series of forty four paintings are some of Sandeman’s most beautiful still life works.


Finlay was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1985. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Aberdeen University in 1987, Heriot-Watt University in 1993 and the University of Glasgow in 2001, and an honorary and/or visiting professorship from the University of Dundee in 1999. The French Communist Party presented him with a bust of Saint Just in 1991. He received the Scottish Horticultural Medal from the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society in 2002, and the Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award in 2003. Awarded in the Queen's New Year's Honours list in 2002, Finlay was a CBE. He suffered a stroke and died on 27 March 2006 in a nursing home in Edinburgh.


He is represented by the Wild Hawthorn Press, the Archive of Ian Hamilton Finlay, which works closely with the Ingleby Gallery (Edinburgh) and the Victoria Miro Gallery (London) in the U.K.


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