Introducing Ian Hamilton Finlay

“Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.”
—”Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening.”

I first met Ian in 1967. I’d written him a letter requesting a meeting and an interview, for a research project on contemporary Scottish poetry. His answer, welcoming me with his customary openness and generosity, was dated “Jumy 3rd.” Rather than excusing the typo, he wrote: “It must be some sort of summer elephant.” For forty years thereafter, he never ceased to show me things as rare, as beautiful, as whimsical, or as sublime as summer elephants.

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) was one of the great artists of his age, despite (or because of) the fact that he was never completely of his age. He stood in often solitary opposition to many of its major currents. He was a devout Classicist in an age of Romanticism. He used post-modernist techniques in profoundly pre-modernist ways. In a pacifist age, he embraced the iconography of war; the most peaceful of men, he was capable of the most refined and civilized anger. His imagery embraced wee Fife fishing boats and Pacific aircraft carriers with equal warmth. He fought constant battles with local authorities, Arts Councils, and all aspects of cultural orthodoxy. He was a 20th century avant-garde artist with roots deeply seated in the 18th century (or the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers–the rough track up to his garden at Stonypath bore the literal but profound admonition “The way up and the way down is one and the same”).

Keeping track of Ian’s work was a continuous and eclectic education: one moment you were catching up on Heraclitus; the next you were reading the Spandau diaries of Albert Speer; and then you were embracing the French Revolutionary ideals of Saint-Just. Yet all the time you were at the cutting edge, not only of the guillotine, but of what it meant to be the most advanced and revolutionary work of the late 20th century in Scotland, in Europe, and even in Canada (The Boy’s Alphabet Book, edited by bpNichol, Coach House Press, 1976).

At that first meeting in 1967, he said to me, “In an age when man has come to dominate more and more of his environment, we cannot _afford_ decadent art.” That was both a moral and an aesthetic statement of creed. In his garden at Dunsyre (austere “Little Sparta,” in perpetual opposition to Edinburgh, the bloated “Athens of the North”), he created the most beautiful man-made space I have ever walked in on earth. Yet one of his enduring mottos was “Et in Arcadia Ego”–from Poussin’s painting, the shepherds recognising “Even here, in this ideal place, I [death] am present.” And now death has entered Ian’s Arcadia. Little Sparta may be preserved, but Dunsyre will never be the same again.

In 1961, Ian Hamilton Finlay published a book called Glasgow Beasts, an a Burd, Haw, an Inseks, an, Aw a Fush. It was a pioneering work, long before its time in its use of colloquial Glaswegian speech for poetic purposes, juxtaposing the comic vernacular with a sophisticated poetics which ranged from the Japanese poet Shimpei Kusano (Frogs) to his American translator, the quintessential Cid Corman. The first poem reads:

see me
wan time
ah wis a fox
an wis ah sleekit! ah
gaed slinkin
an snappin
the blokes
aa sayed ah wis a GREAT fox
aw nae kiddin
ah wis pretty good
had a whole damn wood
in them days

Corman himself could not have surpassed the control of rhythm, or its visual transition from line to line. The tone is exquisitely balanced between a celebration of “foxiness” (both in its literal sense, being a fox, and in its more American slang sense, “foxy”) and a subdued nostalgia for what life was like “wan time…in them days”–the whole ambivalence resting on the final word, “hen,” both the bathetic Glaswegian term of endearment for any female of whatever species and the more ferocious target of any self-respecting fox.

In 1971, the Wild Hawthorn Press issued a limited-edition print entitled Interior/Intérieur: Homage to Vuillard. Within a folder bearing this title, the print consisted of a square image: a field of yellow-orange, within which was a field of black, within which, again in yellow-orange, was the single word SINGER.

Where to begin? (where to end?). An artistic “homage” is itself a classically established tradition. One artist brings his own sensibility to bear upon another’s; the result is a statement about each artist individually, and also about the way they relate to each other within the continuity of culture. The gesture both modifies that continuity and re-asserts it. Such continuity depends upon informed knowledge: Finlay’s poem, without the slightest apology, depends upon its audience’s knowledge of the work of Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), post-Impressionist, “Nabi” painter, supreme depictor of interior scenes so domestic that they become claustrophobic. His female figures, bowing into the constraints of the frame, seem absorbed into the wallpaper. The yellow-orange of Finlay’s print is a key colour for Vuillard: the shade of autumn, fullness verging on decay, the glow of an interior decoration which barely hangs onto life.

Yet Vuillard’s paintings were not, arguably, ironic: he was not satirizing this domesticity any more than he was celebrating it. In the domestic scene, he found a lyrical beauty, of which he was, quite literally, the “singer.”

And at the same time, Finlay’s contemporary perspective, not available to Vuillard, comes into play. The female figures in Vuillard’s paintings are engaged, almost always, in sewing. (For them, it was not necessarily a genteel occupation: just as much, an economic necessity.) And this individualistic activity has, in the years between Vuillard and Finlay, been taken over by a mechanical process: the “sewing machine”: defined, to the point of eponymity, by the word “Singer.” In Finlay’s poem “Singer” means not only the one who, lyrically, sings, but also the one who, mechanically, sews.

Nor can Finlay have been unaware of the March 1941 German bombing raid on the Clyde, which devastated Clydebank and the factories in the area actually known as Singer. Et in Arcadia Ego. “Singer” is also a sign of death. Which may bring us back to the death-in-life stasis of so many of Vuillard’s paintings. Of which, nevertheless, he was the singer.

On the hillside above Little Sparta, a small wooden sundial faces west. On it is carved an inscription (I take the layout of the words not from the sundial, but from its earlier publication as a print):



Considered as a brief lyric poem, the text is in itself very beautiful. Rhythmically, the one-word-per-line arrangement gives it an “un-even” movement that even-tually “evens” out, just as, visually, the breaking of “evening” into “even-ing” is an evening out of the line-length. Literally, the sewing of sails is something that might be done in an evening, after a day’s work; but the association of evening with the end of day suggests also the end of a life, the sewing of a shroud. Metaphorically, the “blue sail” links the elements: it is the blue of both sky and sea, and the action of the sail unites air (wind), water (sea), and their synthesis, land (boat). The sewing of the blue sail brings land and sea together, as the evening fall of darkness renders them indistinguishable from each other.

A lovely poem; but even a text as full as this one seeks, in Finlay, the supplement of visual form. It was first published as a long, vertical print, the words in delicate white lettering against a rich blue background. It also exists, however, as a working sundial, carved in wood, set in the grounds of Little Sparta. From Dunsyre, it faces west, towards a sea that it cannot see; but in the metaphorical interplay of elements, the sea is always present in Finlay’s inland garden. Facing west, it works as a sundial only in the even-ing hours, only when they sew the blue sail. Facing west, it also bears the full force of the Scottish weather–and, as the years have gone by, this sundial has weathered too. Moss grows on the wood; the carving of letters is worn and evened down. Marking the passage of time on a yearly as well as an hourly basis, the sundial too is a living thing that approaches its ending. For it too, as for its creator, the evening will come; they will sew the blue sail.


For an extensive list of books, booklets, cards and other works by Ian Hamilton Finlay, please visit:

For additional discussion and context, please see:

Little Sparta Trust website
Yves Abrioux. Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer. Introduction by Stephen Bann. (Chicago: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2001)
Jessie Sheeler, Little Sparta: The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2003)
Artsy’s Ian Hamilton Finlay page

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