It's down in black and white

Narrowboat colours, Pickfords, Saturn, Shropshire Union Canal Company

The past is a foreign country as the well known quotation puts it but the recent past is also complicated for some of us by being in black and white. Since the widespread availability of photography from the 1860s visual history was increasingly documented by camera, and to people of my generation the pictorial past that we were taught in school came to us in black and white photographs and black ink line illustrations in affordable school books. I was also part of the post-war generation that were brought up in the rather straightened times of the 1950s when grey seemed to be the basic uniform for everything respectable and English. Bright colours were for foreigners or – even worse - the arty set, and I have a clear memory of the arguments before my mother finally gave way to my request for her to knit me a rust coloured pullover in my teens. Red rust – now there was a colour for rebellion and bohemianism! No wonder the colours of midland narrow boats hit me so hard when I finally travelled north. That grey upbringing is still instilled deeply in my subconscious however, and still gives me little shocks and revelations.

I am part of a group of enthusiasts approaching the final stages of the restoration and recreation of the narrow boat Saturn, a graceful craft originally built in 1906 by the Shropshire Union Canal company for their fly boat trade, the quick collection and delivery of mixed goods all over their canal network. With my special interest in boat painting I have landed the job of foreman for the repainting of Saturn in her historic livery, a satisfying challenge but one fraught with a number of quandaries.

Now because the original company finished carrying in 1921, long before colour photography existed all my reference material is in black and white photographs and the documented reminiscences of a number of ex-Shropshire Union boatmen, none of whom, alas, are any longer with us for a second opinion. They all agreed about quite a lot however, the basic white paintwork with black cabin side panels for examples, and the use of a lot of blue too and a bit of red, but exactly which bits were blue and which red, and what sort of blue exactly? So, back to the photographs then, and another close study of the parts that appear as a mid-tone between black and white. With a prayer to the memories of boatmen past, I’ve committed the probabilities and my guesstimates to the reality of paint. The result is beginning to look splendid but is still a surprise to my grey subconscious ghost. It is so bright. Is it right?

In 1998 I was involved with the production of The Wench is Dead for television, one of the episodes in the Inspector Morse series. However, the mystery that he was solving for this show actually took place back in the 1820s and my part of the production, along with David Blagrove, was the dressing up of a butty boat to look like a Pickford’s horse drawn fly boat of the period. Now this of course was even pre-photography so our pictorial references were all engravings and thus all subject to the artistic license of the engraver or the original draughtsman. Most of the pictures agreed about some things however and the production designer was happy to accept our version of what we thought they might have been like.

But what colours? Well, we have some reliable written evidence describing very strong colours on narrow boats in the 1850s and the 1870s so it seemed reasonable to project something of those bright colour schemes backwards for thirty years or more. A tantalising glimpse is offered in a letter to the Birmingham and Lichfield Chronicle in 1822 that describes “a flotilla of nineteen boats; their cabins and helms, ornamented profusely with vermilion and blue, undergoing a general purification.” Right- red and blue then, with plenty of white for the tonal contrast apparent in the engravings. How does that sound? Hmm... well, all right, said the designer, but the colours must not be too bright—in fact they need to be muddy and subtle so that the boat conforms to the generally accepted concept of what the public think it looked like.

In other words the moving picture must look like the still pictures we are already familiar with. Because I know that making a modern television film has to be an amazing combination of artistic compromises to pull together into one satisfactory unit I was perfectly happy to do the job within those aesthetic constraints, but I still have a niggling regret that we were unable to recreate our version of what we thought to have been the historic truth—a much brighter boat.

And now we are about to present Saturn to a twenty-first century public as a statement about how we think things were a hundred years ago. Have we got it right? Well, we’ve done our best but we have plenty of humility left and will be more than happy to be corrected. We’re just trying to record history, not invent it.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
August 2005

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