John Bellany

Star of Bethlehem

1966

Medium
Oil paint on hardboard
Dimensions
Support: 1841 x 2454 mm
frame: 1925 x 2540 x 68 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1979
Reference
T02336

Display caption

Bellany was born and brought up at Port Seton, a fishing village east of Edinburgh. His father and grandfather were both fishermen at Port Seton and Eyemouth. Accounts of the Eyemouth disaster in which a great storm wiped out almost the entire male population of the village had an early, profound influence on Bellany. In common with much of Bellany's work this painting contains a strong autobiographical element. It depicts two fishermen gutting fish in a boat named 'Star of Bethlehem'. As a schoolboy Bellany often worked at gutting fish and 'Star of Bethlehem' was an actual boat based in Eyemouth. Despite these biographical references, the image itself remains enigmatic, inviting yet resisting explanation.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

T02336 STAR OF BETHLEHEM 1968

Inscribed ‘Bellany’ b.1.
Oil on hardboard, 72 1/2 × 96 5/8 (184.1 × 255.5)
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society to mark the opening of the Tate Gallery extension 1979
Exh: John Bellany: Paintings, Acme Gallery, December 1977–January 1978 and subsequent tour to Glasgow Print Studio Gallery, Glasgow and the Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh (2, repr. and wrongly stated to be in collection of Graham and Aileen Martin)

John Bellany was born and brought up at Port Seton, a fishing village east of Edinburgh. His father and grandfather had been fishermen at Port Seton and Eyemouth. Accounts of the Eyemouth Disaster of 1881 in which almost the whole male population of that village, 150 men, was wiped out in one great storm had a great impact on Bellany, emphasising that fishing can be a dangerous occupation.

Bellany has always painted boats. ‘Star of Bethlehem’ was the name of an actual fishing boat based in Eyemouth. Many boats had names with Christian connections as religion played a dominant part in the lives of fishermen and their families. According to Bellany there were twelve churches in Port Seton.

While a schoolboy Bellany often worked at gutting fish, a theme of ‘Star of Bethlehem’ which is also the theme of ‘Bethel’ 1967 (Coll. Southampton Art Gallery). Both of these pictures were painted at the Royal College of Art where the artist was a postgraduate student from 1965 to 1968 after studying at Edinburgh College of Art from 1960 to 1965.

This catalogue entry and that for ‘Celtic Marriage’ are based on a discussion with the artist (10 May 1981).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981