Art, Evidence and Local Knowledge.

Edwin Rowland, folk artist, Coachman's Bridge, Tetchill, Llangollen Canal

The subject of this article is a single remarkable painting, but one that is remarkable in a number of different ways.

It is a painting of the canalside cottage alongside Coachmans Bridge near Tetchill on the Llangollen Canal and was painted in 1888. Perhaps the first surprising thing to note is that the cottage is still there a hundred and twenty years later and is still virtually the same – un-modernised, un-extended, and from a historical viewpoint almost unspoilt. For many years it has been the home of a retired canal lengthsman who did not feel the need for any radical changes so it has happily survived intact from a time with rather different values. Some of the shed roofs have been altered over the years and the wash-house chimney has been capped off but in essence everything remains much as it was. Remarkable.

The artist was an amateur painter called Edwin Rowland, although he was professionally employed as a painter, decorator and signwriter on the local Brownlow Estate, successors and descendants of the Canal Duke, the Duke of Bridgewater and Earl of Ellesmere. Edwin was born in 1862 so he was only a young man of twenty six when he painted this view of a relatively humble local dwelling that was itself only sixty or seventy years old at the time. Why? It would surely not have been regarded as quaint or picturesque in itself by then so there must have been something personal that set him to record the scene in such detail. Is that lady standing in the doorway a relative of his? It should be possible to find out with more research but the details are still lost in the family history for now.

One of the many troubles with artists is that they make things up. Just because there is a picture of it doesn’t mean it actually happened so any ‘evidence’ offered by a painting has to be judged very critically, with caution. However in this case, because the modern photographic evidence supports the artistic statement so completely we can with more confidence than usual accept Edwin’s painted version of events. He was clearly an untutored artist in the formal academic sense, a man with a simple vision and a simple purpose, in an age long before abstraction or self-conscious self-expression clouded things. But he observed relative proportions and details with accuracy, and when he marks a path from the back door to some steps for getting washing water out of the canal I believe him totally. So too the pair of donkeys on the towpath, the sign on the bridge and the cat in the flower bed.

The style of this painting is odd, for it falls between several of the usual categories. It is mainly painted in watercolours I think, washes of thin colour that allow the background to show through but it has then been heightened and strengthened with opaque colour on top, particularly a whitish highlighting of many of the boundaries. But age has thrown much of the original colour out of balance and has made the picture more difficult to read. It is painted on cheap cardboard which has yellowed (or rather browned) badly over the years, spoiling the translucency of the watercolour and giving the whole picture a rather neutral fawn colour. Watercolours also fade notoriously badly in bright light, which will have dulled the original effect still further, and this has pushed the opaque colours into even more prominence, looking like snow on the top of the walls and on the grass. The general atmosphere has a rather surreal dreamlike intensity, but I think this is entirely accidental. And then he has trimmed the picture shape with stepped and radiused corners as if held by old-fashioned photo album mounts. But this is in 1888! Remarkable.

I have only seen three other pictures by Edwin Rowland. One is another large topographical view of a wheelwright’s house and some cottages on the old A5 Holyhead road near Queen’s Head, in a watercolour style not dissimilar to this one. But the other two are neat little oil paintings in the standard decorative landscape genre, romanticised countryside pictures with feathery trees and dimity cottages peeping over the hedge. They are technically very proficient and attractive, gentle pictures that wouldn’t look out of place on a canal boat’s back doors. But slow drying oil paint is a forgiving medium and Edwin would have been very familiar with this material from his work as a signwriter. It is also recorded that his own father John was a capable painter too, locally renowned for painting some friendly society banners even though he was a cooper by trade, so some family encouragement can be assumed. I hope to see more of Edwin’s work for there must surely be more paintings by this remarkable folk artist tucked away in the locality. Watch this space.

©Tony Lewery,
The Brow,
Ellesmere,
30th January 2008

This article is dedicated to the memory of Edwin’s grandson Eric Rowland who died on 31 December 2007, a gentle, generous man and a fount of local knowledge.


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