Canal Folk Art
‘Roses and Castles’, narrowboat & barge signwriting and painters
Written and illustrated by Tony Lewery.
The folk arts of the English canals are unusual because they were apparently born without clear historical ancestors, the origins of part of this traditional culture still remain a mystery.
The folk arts associated with the ‘narrow boats’ of the midland canals presumably can’t predate the boats themselves, and those boats were not in existence before the middle of the eighteenth century when the narrow canals were built. That is quite recent in art history terms. The first written and pictorial references to bright colours and painted roses and castles on canal boats do not occur until even later, in the mid nineteenth century. This was, therefore, an extraordinary flowering of a new folk art at a time when many other old trades and traditional ways of life were withering away.
Canal Art Heritage
How did a new folk art arise at a time when the Industrial Revolution was killing off traditional crafts? What on earth was so special about it?
Roses and Castles is the popular name for the traditional paintwork of the narrow boats, bunches of roses and medieval castles being common features.
The most powerful impression made by a traditional narrow boat is of lots of carefully contrasted coloured decoration, covering almost everything.
Canal Boat Painters
Hand painted signwriting is an important ingredient of canal boat decoration, often treated as another painted pattern to enhance the boat.
The majority of the folk painting of the canals was from the hands of a relatively few professionals, but they were professional boatbuilders, not painters.
Links to working canal boat painters, signwriters and decorators and links to companies supplying paint and painting supplies for canal boats.
The decorative ropework tradition of canal boats was a combination of strictly practical demands with the boatman's cultural need for elaboration.
With her cabin crochet work, the boatwoman was able to create with her own hands, beautiful articles to adorn her tiny cabin home. Written by Liz Bryant.
Links to canal artists & canal crafts people, painters and suppliers of traditional canalware.
Find out more about canal narrowboats, canal & river barges, and lots of other UK inland craft. Written by Tony Lewery with many original photos.
The best way to understanding & enjoy the folk art of the canal is to experience the real thing. But failing that we have some suggestions.
The secret heart of all the arts of the narrow boat world was the tiny cabin, a tiny space, but one which shaped the lives of the boat people.
Canal Art Works
Tony Lewery's beautifully illustrated and informative Canal Folk Art book, Flowers Afloat, explores the traditions and development of this art.
Eric Gaskell has produced some striking limited edition lino-cuts of scenes around the Canal System.
The painted decoration of working boats on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, known locally as 'Brightwork', was one of the most colourful of Britain’s folk traditions.
All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. No unauthorised reproduction. Page last updated: 10/06/2023.
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