weather-vane, Ian Hamilton Finlay, late 1960's
photograph by David Paterson, 1975

I was too young to be aware of this 'work of art' when it was installed at Stonypath, being only 2 or 3 years old at the time. If my recollections are true, what I enjoyed about it first was its bright whiteness and, being on the back pond – in those early days the ponds had not reached the elect status of 'pool' – it was at the epicentre of the garden.

For the first decade or so, the garden at Stonypath was concentrated on the old walled shepherd's garden at the front of the house, and the area abounding the new pond that IHF dug at the back door. The importance of the pond is shown by the fact that he began digging it almost as soon as we were unpacked. My mother Sue recalls the labour in her memoir, 'The Planting of a Hillside Garden': 
'As I work in the kitchen I look out of my window and see shadowy figures digging a great wide muddy hole where the old midden used to be. I argue with the chief digger: "You can't make a pond there – all the water will come into the kitchen!"
But it didn't.

Soon there would be another pond up on the hillside, which had the effect of defining the far horizon – a kind of planted flag, committing Sue and Ian to taming the great expanse of wild grasses, heather and bog in-between.

As a boy, the back pond was the element of the garden I was most drawn to. Things could be done there. The serious business of play could happen.

Sometimes we sailed the wee wooden boat, Sea Eck; at other times, when the sun warmed the water, Ailie and I would swim there, swirling up clouds of mud, being careful that an ankle didn't catch the anchor chain of the weather-vane.

There were golden orfe in the pond, when the heron didn't get them.  And I loved to lie on the bank, chin tickled by the blades of grass at the pond's edge, watching taddies. There I discovered the moveable fankle of mud and tiny twigs that was the caddis-fly's home.

The trees were still in the process of being planted, so it was too early for Ian to say, as he would later write.

            The wind is invisible
            but we can see which way
            the trees lean

At this time, for all of us, the pond was the most intimate and ever-present register of the wind. On any day we could look out from the windows at the back of the house and judge how the weather stood from the effects of the breeze upon the water.

            Autumn gale

            a rush of ripples
            rip across the surface

            Summer evening

            a circle set
            off by an orfe
            dipped through
            the meniscus

            Spring day

            peeking at the pale
            of a great green lobe

            as the lily-pad
            furls in a gust

            Winter's morn
            ice – enough
            to bear?

The associations that the weather-vane has are therefore childish, for it is aye fastened to this playful element of the pond. In a surprising way, this child's enthusiasm is appropriate as a way to understand the wider context of this artwork, for it's 'toy-constructivism' represents the meeting between toy poem-object and garden poem and, in so doing it defines a, perhaps the, crucial transition in Ian Hamilton Finlay's art.

toy fish, 1965

Toys were the crucial made things that marked his evolution. They led to the transitional concept of the “poeomorama”, a "sort of theatre of kinetic poems” (letter to Ann and Zeljko Kujundzic, March 1964). This modeled world, created when Ian was mostly confined to his flat in Fettes Row, consisted of pinewoods, watermills, boats and planes. These objects, in turn, led to the innovative kinetic poems, sequential book-works and poster-poems with diverse typographies – all of which unfolded journeys that he could not make himself. The canal with its jolly barge sailing slowly by; the port bustling with lemon-shaped fishing-boats; and the little fish leaping in a longed-for burn.

The weather-vane is a memory of that era of toy making. It also emblematic of his new beginning in the countryside. After he met my mother, Sue, IHF was able to leave Edinburgh and get back to the wilderness places he loved. First they moved to Gledfield Farmhouse, on the Dornoch Firth, where he dug his first pond, and worked with Dick Sheeler to construct his first poem-objects, in painted wood and plastic letters.

IHF, Sue, the Sea Eck, in-front of IHF's first pond, Gledfield, Ardgay

Then they found a permanent home at Stonypath. In a garden, released from his years of agoraphobia that made the city such a torture, there was the enormous excitement of simply being outdoors.

The poet no longer any need to describe the effects of wind and water poetically. What was needed now was a poetic-object, a thing to register those effects. And so he devised the weather-vane.

It is only recently that I have realised how ingenious the design of the weather-vane was. It combined the two key Finlayian motifs of this era: sundial and sail-boat. My father considered these two things which he was so fond of and recognised what they share in common. The idea, well, it was simply this:

            the boat's
            angled sail
            catches the wind

            the sundial's
            angled gnomon
            catches the light

            the weather-vane's
            is an arrow

            moved by the air
            floating on
            the water

Likely enough the realisation of how they might be combined came to him as he was sailing around the pond on the Sea Eck, waiting for the right kind of wind – which, as sailor's of small boats all know, comes too rarely.

As Stonypath gradually evolved into Little Sparta, as the work shifted towards stone and the moss of Classicism, the weather-vane became a memorial of that early era.

It points toward the idylls of R L Stevenson as much as it draws on the models of Tatlin and El Lizzitsky. Installed on the pond, anchored by concrete weights, this toy-constructivist object gathers together the elements – the breeze that directs the vane; the water that supports the compass points; the reflections of the clouds; the containing banks of the earth that model the pond. In doing so it predicts the later pre-Socratic era of work which emerged a decade later, where the elements are treated in a much graver manner.

The pond in later years
photograph by Robin Gillanders, 2002

The weather-vane no longer exists at Stonypath. What remains is the wind, of which IHF spoke so touchingly, in his Detached Sentences on Exile.

'Who is not an exile when, in the evening, he hears the wind in the trees?' 

More recently I was preparing some ideas for a possible wind-energy related commission on Orkney, and I came back to the wind-vane as one potential form, enjoying the way the viewer reads a word or letter back to front, as well as front and 'true'. The drawings were realised by Jo Salter.


wind-vanes, Alec Finlay with Jo Salter, 2009

1 comment:

  1. hank you. I've been photographing some weather-vanes here in france recently.