I took up Canal Art nearly thirty years ago after attending a number of courses, having seen the brightly coloured boats on a family holiday. Having got so much pleasure from the painting I decided to pass on some of that enjoyment through teaching the subject at one-day and weekend courses.
Canal Art includes roses & daises and castle pictures but can also include scroll patterns, compass wheel designs, playing card motifs, sign-writing, etc. Canal Art, sometimes referred to as ‘Roses & Castles’, really took off with the birth of the railways. The new competition caused costs to be cut, so boatmen brought their families on board to work as crew. The narrowboat cabin became the family home and the home needed decorating. Boat people would have been aware of current styles and fashions from the goods they carried so as is done today, popular styles were copied and then took on a life of their own. Early flower patterns looked realistic but as the style became popular, it was simplified and stylised by boatyard painters, who decorated whole fleets of boats. This stylisation reached its peek between the beginning of the 20th century and the First World War. There was a decline through the Second World War and with nationalisation in the 1950’s it all but disappeared until canals were rediscovered for leisure purposes in the 1970's. Since then, many derelict canals have been restored and the British Waterways Board has evolved into the Canal and River Trust. With a whole new generation of boats now found on the canals the decoration has also evolved to cater for this.
The first major item I painted was a stool having been through a few exercises on card. The date of this item can been seen on the stool which included all the main aspects of canal art: roses & daises, a castle scene, lettering and scroll work.
People like myself, having discovered canals through leisure boating became interested in Canal Art. This group of amateur painters helped supplement the fast dwindling number of professionals still working on the canals. This new breed of painters are helping to keep the tradition going and develop new techniques for the current range of boats found on our waterways. The best way of learning is by watching someone else and then copying. It‘s a craft that anyone can learn to some extent, and is more about technique than artistic ability, although a sense of colour is useful.
People involved with Canal Art seem to fall into a number of different groups. There are those who want to preserve the art as it was. Those who see it as a 'Folk Art' and feel it must evolve with the times, like Fairground Art has. A few paint on a professional footing and others paint just for fun. In different ways, they all are helping to preserve canal art and develop it for the future. A future that could be much longer than the time of commercial carrying when the art originally developed.
Alternative to Castle Picture
Following in a tradition of variations on the castle theme this Water Can was painted as a prize for a canal festival. As the festival was being held at Three Mills in the London Borough of Newham, one of the mills was featured instead of a castle picture. The three mills, on the River Lea, were all tidal but now only two remain. Its an area at the start of the Lea Valley Park and has now become more popular since the London 2012 Olympics.