Who is Ian Hamilton Finlay?

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) was a Scottish poet, artist… and gardener!

Although he studied at Glasgow School of Art, he was always interested in writing and words and published his first book of short stories in 1958 (while working as a shepherd in Rousay in Orkney). He went on to write more poetry books, as well as starting his own publishing press.

His artworks, which often combine image and text, explore history and philosophy and also nature and our relationship with nature – especially the sea and fishing.

Poem/Print No. 14

Poem/Print No. 14 1970

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) and John Furnival (1933–2020) and Wild Hawthorn Press (active since c.1967)

The Pier Arts Centre

In 1966 Ian Hamilton Finlay began to create a garden, called Little Sparta, at his home in the Pentland Hills. The garden combined his love of nature and his interest in visual art, words and ideas.

Find out more about Ian Hamilton Finlay and Little Sparta


Concrete poetry and 'poem objects'

In the early 1960s, Ian Hamilton Finlay became interested in the visual form of words and began to write concrete poetry.

Concrete poetry is a form of poetry in which the words are arranged in such a way that helps convey their effect and meaning.


Ajar 1967

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) and John Furnival (1933–2020)

The Pier Arts Centre

He later took the idea of words having a physical presence to a new level by developing 'poem objects' where he placed his poems – which were sometimes short phrases or single words – onto objects.

He also made three-dimensional versions of words themselves so that they became objects.

Lead Us

Lead Us 1968

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006)


Words and shapes

Here is another concrete poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay. Notice how some of the words are written smaller, adding visual interest to the image.


Star/Steer 1966

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) and Tarasque Press (active since 1964)

The Pier Arts Centre

Discuss the artwork with your students.

  • What words can you see in this concrete poem?
  • What do you think this poem is about? What does it make you think of?
  • Does the shape of the poem suggest anything about the words and the poem's meaning?
  • How has the artist changed the letters from 'star' to make the word 'steer'?

Poem thoughts

The poem perhaps suggests a sailor, steering his boat by the stars at night.

The zigzag shape of the words suggest the points of a star. But the shape could also look like the path of a boat, zigzagging its way through the water.

Hamilton Finlay has changed the vowels to make the word 'star' into 'steer'. He has replaced the 'a' with two 'e's. The consonants have remained the same. The words sound similar, but they have a very different meaning.


Have a go at concrete poetry!

Task your students with creating a concrete poem, by using words to form a picture.

Use nature as inspiration for this task.

Step 1. Starting points: nature and words

Go outside (or look out of the window). Choose something from nature. (For example a tree, the sky, or even the weather.)

The Rainy Day

The Rainy Day 1996

Emily Learmont (b.1969)

Art in Healthcare

Write down some words or short sentences about your chosen subject. These could be about:

  • what it looks like
  • how it makes you feel
  • what it makes you think of

The words don't have to be a poem in the traditional sense but could be a series of observations, thoughts and ideas.

It might be easiest to write five short sentences about your chosen subject. For example:

The tree has no leaves. Its branches are wavy. It moves in the wind. Its bark is rough. It looks like a skinny person with their arms in the air. It stands by itself with nothing around it.
The rain pours down. It soaks me! Its been raining all day. The pavements are wet. I hate it!

Teachers notes:

If your students are struggling to get going, you could use these questions as prompts:

What are you going to write about? What does it look like? What colour is it? Is it rough or smooth? Is it moving? Where is it? What is around it? Does it remind you of anything else? What does it make you feel? Do you like it?

Step 2. Arrange your words

Use the words you have written to make your concrete poem.

Arrange the words on the paper to suggest your subject – as Ian Hamilton Finlay did with Acrobats and Star/Steer.

For example, if your poem is about a tree, write the words so that they look like a tree's branches. If it's about rain, you could write the words so that they tumble down the page like raindrops.

Write your words in the shape of your subject to make your concrete poem

Write your words in the shape of your subject to make your concrete poem

Tip: Change the order of the words, make the words BIGGER and smaller, split the sentences up and repeat words to make them fit the shapes that you want.


Younger or less able students may find it easier to draw the outline shape of their subject and fill it in with their words.

If you are teaching older students, you could task them with exploring the interaction between words and images by juxtaposing unlikely words and images as Ian Hamilton Finlay often did.

Sea Poppy I

Sea Poppy I 1966

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) and Alistair Cant (active since c.1966)

The Pier Arts Centre

In Sea Poppy I, letters and numbers have been arranged to suggest the shape of a flower's head. The letters and numbers may look random but they are in fact, the registration numbers of boats. Sea poppies are a type of flower only found near the sea, so the boat numbers make sense – but the connection is not immediately obvious. By organising the business-like letters into the shape of a flower, Hamilton Finlay gives them a kind of poetry.

Encourage your students to think outside the box.



As well as forming images from words, Ian Hamilton Finlay often juxtaposed unlikely images and words to make us question the meaning of what we are looking at. He also playfully experimented with words and what they sound like or suggest.

Look at this print with your students.


Catameringue 1970

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) and Peter Grant (active since c.2009)

The Pier Arts Centre

Ask your students:

  • what does the shape in this picture look like?
  • what do you think a 'catameringue' is?

About Catameringue

The print shows a simplified outline of a meringue with cream spilling out at either side. Underneath is the word 'Catameringue'. This is a nonsense word made up by the artist and combines two words – catamaran and meringue.

A catamaran is a type of boat that has two hulls – so it might look a little like the two halves of a meringue. By combining the words, Hamilton makes us think about the sound and meaning of both words.

The simplified outline could cleverly be a drawing of a meringue or a catamaran. Or it could be a combination of both objects – the hulls of the catamaran with added cream in between!

Have a go at playing with words!

This activity encourages students to think about the meaning and structure of words.

Ask your students if they can think of:

  • words that sound a bit like another word (these could be words that rhyme such as 'people' and 'steeple' or words that have similar letters and syllables such as 'chicken' and 'checking')
  • words that mean something completely different by changing one letter (such as 'house' and 'mouse')
  • words that sound the same but have very different meanings – such as 'plain' and 'plane'
  • words that include parts or syllables within the word that sound like other words – such as 'garden' ('guard' and 'den').

Task your students with drawing a picture inspired by their wordplay ideas.

For example, it could be a drawing that combines a house with a mouse... Or it could be a chicken checking something, or a drawing of a 'guarden' (what would that look like?!).

A combination drawing of a mouse and a house

A combination drawing of a mouse and a house

Write the word or words that inspired the drawing alongside it. Think about how you can arrange the letters on the paper to reflect your wordplay.

Make a print!

Ian Hamilton Finlay often presented his visual poetry in the form of prints. Students could develop their drawings into relief prints or monoprints.

Use these activity links for simple printmaking ideas:

RA learning: Make a relief print
BBC Bitesize: Monoprinting
Kids Art: How to create monoprints

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