Artist, poet, dramatist, publisher, horticulturalist and cultural provocateur, Finlay was born in Nassau, the Bahamas, but moved with his Scottish parents to Helensburgh in 1927 and remained for the rest of his life in Scotland. He left school at the age of fourteen to work for the Forestry Commission, after which followed a brief spell at Glasgow School of Art, and a period of service in the army. He first achieved recognition as a writer of short stories and plays, but may be said to have found his true voice in the 1960s, when he began to produce concrete poetry, much of which appeared in his own imprint, the Wild Hawthorn Press. Five years later he settled in the remote village of Dunsyre in Lanarkshire, where he embarked on the life-long process of transforming the field surrounding his cottage into the ‘philosophical garden’ that came to be known as Little Sparta. Proceeding on the maxim that a garden can be an ‘attack’ as much as a ‘retreat’, he populated the five-acre space with sculptures and other collaborative interventions that interrogate the connected themes of classical culture, the history of art, the French Revolution and contemporary militarism. Despite suffering from acute agoraphobia, which prevented him leaving Little Sparta for much of his later life, he engaged in a prolonged and spirited power struggle with the Scottish art bureaucracy, and undertook numerous international commissions, producing permanent landscape installations at the Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands; the Museum of Modern Art, Strasbourg; and the University of California, San Diego. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1985, and appointed CBE in 2002.
Bibliography: Guardian, 29 March 2006 (obit.); P.J.M. McEwan, The Dictionary of Scottish Art and Architecture, Ballater, Aberdeenshire, 2004; R. McKenzie, Public Sculpture of Edinburgh (2 vols), Liverpool, 2018, vol. 1, pp. 171–72, 241–43, vol. 2, pp. 332–40; R. Merritt and F. Greenacre, with K. Eustace, Public Sculpture of Bristol, Liverpool, 2011, pp. 121–23.
Ray McKenzie 2018