Canal Art – The narrowboat painters

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.

 

The decoration of the boat with painted patterns, lettering and roses and castles was simply regarded as part of the job, no more important than knowing how to measure and cut timber, or how to caulk and tar the planking. That which is now recognised as the Art of the narrow boats was, in the heyday of canal carrying, simply an intrinsic part of the Craft of being a competent boatbuilder.

 

Talent will out, however, and the painted work of an artistically gifted workman would soon be recognised by his peers. For the reputation of the boatyard, and thus to their mutual benefit, the best man for the job was naturally offered more work and practice in that field, and became effectively the firm’s specialist decorator. But most canal boatyards were small enterprises, and their few workmen were primarily woodworkers with one or two of them doing the fancy painting as required. Artistically untrained but manually skilful, their pictorial work could be the purest folk art, straightforward in intent, spontaneous yet neat in application and refreshingly naive in effect – personal self expression through the convention of others.


A number of larger yards did employ specialist painters whose work consequently shows the extra confidence that constant practice brings, and their greater production also means that much of their work survives. Bill Hodgson was a full time boat painter and decorator on the Trent and Mersey Canal for fifty years, and his heavy, rather naturalistically painted florid roses strongly influenced the tradition in that area, whilst on the Grand Union Canal the painted work of boatbuilder Frank Jones at Leighton Buzzard was in such demand that he ended up as a full time decorative artist. Fellows, Morton and Clayton had such a large fleet that their Birmingham boat dock employed George Preston as a regular signwriter and decorator for most of his working life. In Northamptonshire, Nurser’s Dock at Braunston particularly catered for the elaborately decorated coal boats of the owner boatmen of the area, and the renowned Frank Nurser, son of the founder, worked as a painter for most of his time, and as yard manager for the rest. Such was the reputation of that yard that Frank taught many other younger tradesmen the skill, and his style and influence is still obvious today, nearly half a century after his death.


However, the boat painting really belonged to the boat population, even if the boatyards were producing most of it for them by proxy, and a large number of boatmen were themselves accomplished artists within the tradition. Done for their own families without commercial pressure, their work is often painstakingly detailed, carefully and slowly done even if the results are more clumsy than the slick commercial work of the dock painters.

 

It was always difficult to find the time and space for painting in a busy boating life of long hours and tiny cabins, so the large proportion of work that was produced by working boatmen is quite surprising, and underlines the importance that this private trade convention had for the boat population. It was a visual statement of pride and separateness, the badge of an elite.


The fact that this badge was an explosion of colour, texture and applied art on an essentially mundane tool of the transport industry – a small barge – still remains an unexplained miracle of the industrial revolution, and a continuing delight.

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