I discovered canal art during my first narrowboat holiday on the Ashby canal. Garlands of painted roses and daisies decorated not only items on the roofs of the boats but also the boats themselves. As we sailed passed those boats that were moored, I also noticed pictures of majestic castles surrounded by mountains and rivers painted on the back doors and side hatches: a floating gallery of artistic expertise.
So many boats were painted with this type of artwork that I looked into the history of the waterways and discovered that canal art is a recognized traditional art form. Canal art can trace its roots back to the beginnings of the modern canal era in the 18th century when boats began to be painted with roses and castles designs. I have always loved drawing and painting, so decided to have a go myself.
I have been very lucky to be mentored by one of the Masters of the Waterways Craft Guild who has helped me tremendously in the use of colour and techniques required to style my artwork in the ‘traditional’ vein, using colours and motifs that have become synonymous with canal art. The photographs in the section below show some of the styles of roses I paint and typical castle scenes.
By making good use of old, often dilapidated and discarded objects, I give them a new life and purpose. Granny’s old flat iron, which has lain rusting in a corner of the shed, can now take pride of place at the fireside. The old galvanized watering can of Dad’s becomes a pleasure to use in its smart new waterways livery.
Having seen my work, next time you are walking along a canal towpath or sitting by a wharf, you may take a closer look at the décor adorning the narrow boats and reflect on an art form largely unchanged since the first barges carried coal on James Brindley’s waterways in the eighteenth century.
Accredited Journeyman in Decorative Painting
Waterways Craft Guild
The tradition of decorating boats and boatmen’s objects dates back to the earliest days of Britain’s canals of the modern era. It is hard to say with any certainty how this tradition came about, but the inland waterways story gives us some clues.
Prior to the coming of the canals, carters in England were in the habit of painting floral designs on their carts and wagons. Some of the larger vehicles were elaborately decorated with intricate piping and lining, cartouche panels and bunches of roses. It is thought that these expert horse drivers may have been among the first generation of horse drawn boat operators, we might, therefore, suppose that they may well have begun adorning their boats as they had done their carts. Over time, this resulted in a stunning array of clusters of roses which brightened up the boatman’s cabin and many of the tools of his trade.
The tradition of boats carrying panels depicting fantastic castles in mountainous locations is a little more difficult to pin down. There are, however, striking similarities between the narrowboat castle scenes and those on many British ceramic products of the late 18th to the late 19th centuries". Some of these themes also appear in the face surrounds of certain makes of standing clocks from the period. It is believed that the painters of these wares were employed on a piece work basis, so it is quite possible that they earned a few extra pennies in the boat yards when business was slow, painting what they knew well – castle scenes.
Over time these disparate elements have become formalised into a very particular style of art which can be enjoyed today each time you take a walk along a tow path.
When my husband and I are travelling the waterways with our labrador, be it by boat or walking the towpath, we are always on the lookout for pubs which are 'dog friendly'. Here are a few we've found which welcome well behaved dogs. I've listed them by canal. If you're thinking of visiting any of these pubs with your dog I suggest you call them first to ensure their policy re dogs hasn't changed.
Union Canal, Scotland
Tel: 0131 333 1320
The Grand Union Canal, Northamptonshire
Tel: 01788 822517
Images subject to copyright laws. Please email at the address below if you wish to use them. All items shown on this website are for decorative purposes only.