Ian Hamilton Finlay

Starlit Waters


Not on display

Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925–2006
Wood and nylon net
Object: 311 × 2400 × 133 mm
Purchased 1976

Technique and condition

The sculpture is constructed from wood and nylon net. The letters are painted green and the base is painted blue, both are household paint. The underside of the base is not painted but is coated with a varnish.

The sculpture is structurally in good condition but there are some splits in the wood and damages to the paint layer. The wood which makes up the base is slightly bowed along its length. The splits and paint losses are due to shrinkage of the wood. There is one vertical split in the ‘R’ of ‘Waters’. The joins between the wood have also separated due to the shrinkage but appear to be secure. The most obvious damages are located in the front face of the base. Twenty six screw heads for the interior of the piece protrude above the painted surface. These have damaged the paint and caused some loss of the paint and the filling beneath it. The nylon net is in good condition but it makes the bottom of the piece uneven, causing the work to rock.

Bryony Bery

April 2004

Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Painted wood and nylon fishing net, 12 1/4×94 1/2×5 1/4 (31.1×240×13.4)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1976
Exh: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Axiom Gallery, August–September 1968 (no catalogue); Ian Hamilton Finlay, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, July–August 1972 and subsequent tour (31)
Lit: Bryan Robertson, ‘There? Where?’, Spectator, 6 September 1968, p.336; Stephen Bann, ‘Ian Hamilton Finlay-the structure of a poetic universe’, Studio International, February 1969, p.78 repr.; David Brown; ‘Stonypath: An Inland Garden’ Studio International, January/February 1977 pp.34–37

The following catalogue entry has been approved by Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Between about the time of the publication of the first edition of his volume of poetry The Dancers Inherit the Party (Migrant Press) in 1960 and the publication of his first collection of concrete poems Rapel (Wild Hawthorn Press) in 1963 Ian Hamilton Finlay, who was then living at 24 Fettes Row, Edinburgh, started to make toys. The first poem objects date from c. 1963. In a letter to the compiler (3 March 1976) Finlay wrote of these objects: ‘...the glass poems were begun where we were in Easter Ross 1965–6, though I had made attempts to begin them while I was still in Edinburgh ... and in fact, all these projects had their beginnings at the Fettes Row time, but I had neither the money nor collaborators... it is true that the turning to objects (toys or poems) was important to me, because of some kind of feeling/realization/crisis/change which clearly relates (in some stumbling and imperfect, personal way) to the issue of Didactic v Free Floating as explained by Gombrich in that essay [Icones Symbolicae]. In the area of poetry, I felt an absolute need to turn from the rhythmic to the Static, and as I was unable to explain this to myself, and knew no one who could explain it to me, (or who had the faintest inkling of the feeling I was talking about), I had to find such temporary solutions as I could, and turned to making little toys-things of no account in themselves, yet true to my inspiration, which was away from Syntax towards “the Pure”. -To write of this is to falsify it, (and the objects were, besides, inept and ridiculous). Yet the aspiration (need) related to the feeling which Gombrich discovers behind the Emblems and which is surely present in, say, the best concrete poems of Gomringer (of whom I had not of course heard at that time).’

The themes of boats, especially fishing boats and fishing, have occupied Finlay for many years and as a child he was very interested in boats. He started to use actual boat names, and numbers in his work in about 1964. In his first poster/poem ‘Le Circus’ 1964, Finlay included the boat number K47 (K is the registration letter for Kirkwall) which is identified with the circus pony. The first boat name constructed in wood was ‘Starlit Waters’ T02034. Like T02034 ‘Drift’ (Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne) was also covered with nylon net and made in 1967 or 1968. Two other boat names, ‘Moss Rose’ and ‘Lead Us’, were made in 1968 but not covered in net. Also dating from 1968 are ‘Starwood’ and ‘Maryeared’ on a smaller scale (4×38×1 1/2 in.), both covered with shrimp net. From 1968 dates the first boat registration number in painted wood, ‘KY 250’, somewhat shorter in length than T.2034, and from 1969 ‘FR 195’, ‘BCK 52’ and ‘KY 365’. Finally, also dating from 1969, is ‘FR 168’ of smaller size than the other boat registration numbers (4×24×1 1/2 in.) which is the only boat number Finlay covered with net.

Finlay used a number of boatnames which included the word ‘star’ (but not ‘Starlit Waters’) later in a poem Green Waters now collected in Honey by the Water (Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, 1973).

T02034 was made by a joiner in Edinburgh. At that time, as now, Finlay was living at Stonypath, Dunsyre, Lanark. The letters of T02034 are painted dark green, the base is dark blue and the fishing net, of 1 1/2 inch mesh, is orange. Other boat names and registration numbers are composed of letters and numbers of different designs and painted in a variety of colours which differ from T02034; for example in ‘Maryeared’ the letters are dark blue, the base orange and they are covered with light blue net; ‘FR 168’ is composed of green letters on a yellow base and is covered with orange net.

In a letter to the compiler (27 April 1976) Finlay wrote: 'I don't know which fishing boat bore the name Starlit Waters-i.e. I don't know her port registration letters and number. In those days I was interested in the comings and goings of the boats and I subscribed to Fishing News and similar publications, and may well have seen the name there. I suppose it would be akin to the idea of Schwitters finding a bus ticket with the colour or shape he wanted to complete a projected work. (To have invented the name would have been like painting one's own “found” bus ticket...Printing one's own “found” bus ticket would be another inadmissible variation)!

'I find it difficult to comment on my concern with-interest in-fishing boats (warships, etc.). I have always regarded boats as being a legitimate part of the world, an attitude which some people do find surprising. All the same, they are there (along with trees, nudes, self-propelled guns, pebbles, mandolins-and other subject matter). Bryan Robertson's Spectator description of ‘Starlit Waters’ is a pretty exact account of my intentions... as well as providing (at least for me) a splendid guarantee of the communicability or concretisation of those intentions; since I had no contact of any sort with Bryan R. (except through the work itself). [Bryan Robertson wrote in a review of an exhibition of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay at the Axiom Gallery in September 1968, published in The Spectator 6th September 1968 p.336: ‘Set on the floor and extending laterally are two words STARLIT WATERS, with the letters three dimensionally cut and separated; these two words... march along like a procession, on a solid base. Enveloping the whole thing is a tightly drawn orange fishing-net of open diamond-shaped repeat design. The net slightly muffles the impact of the words, qualifies their meaning and triggers off an extraordinary sensation, both concrete and mysterious, of waters spangled by starlight...The imaginative extension and suggestiveness are there in the concrete reality which confronts-and confounds you.’] 'A thought about the nets: apart from the feeling/meaning, there is the fact that they add to the “object” status of the works, by pulling them together into a single piece, where they would otherwise be more obviously of 3 pieces-base, and 2 words (in the case of “Starlit Waters”), or base and letters (2 pieces) in other cases.

'There is a point at which rationalisation becomes absurd, but it is not impossible that I also thought of the work as a “wrapped object”, with the net replacing the opaque wrappings, and the whole thing as a kind of purified version of the profane (as it were)...a “good” instead of an “unpleasant” mystery.... As you see, I am referring to whoever it was who did the wrapped objects at around that time; I can't remember his name [Christo], but it is highly likely that I was conscious of upgrading something that I thought suspect... not that this intention would have been more than a kind of “extra” to the effect/feeling as described by Bryan Robertson.

'Obviously, I was doing a lot of other things as well as boat names, port registration letters, etc.-And my recent (printed) folder relating to Watteau seems to me to be very similar to “Starlit Waters”, in that it relies on the “white magic” of Art... on a meaning achieved through the simplest effects.

‘I think of the work being displayed as it was in our gallery-set on the floor. However, it could be placed on a shelf. In that case, one loses the long perspective (which I always imagined in relation to these works); and one couldn't walk around the object. All the same, it could be tolerable. What one must not do is suspend the work. It must stand on its own base, on a solid surface.’

Finlay wrote of his work (letter to the compiler-21 March 1976): ‘You will see (as a general point) that I think of the works as poems because they are “centres of reference” to things, and ideas. The work as an art work or thing, must have a proper unity, resolved and simple-and within this are references and ideas which should be opened out. This is why I do not think of them as (say) sculpture, because I am quite happy to accept William Tucker's idea that contemporary sculpture is pure experience of space. That is not what I am doing at all.’

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

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