Canal Art, such a hazy term ..

What do you think of when you hear the expression ‘Canal Art’? Is it Roses and Castles, Canaletto, or a drawing by Telford? Each has a valid claim and there could be a host of others too. Perhaps we need some more precise words for Art just as the Eskimo has lots of descriptive nouns for different types of snow. What should we call the art of the photographer Eric de Mare to differentiate it from the sculptural stuff that increasingly litters up the towpath?

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My fresh attention to this hazy term has been focussed recently by two new canal books, one just published and another about to be. The first is Brightwork by Mike Clarke and Sam Yates, a detailed and long overdue study of the extraordinary paintwork traditions of the boats of the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Because their odd size precluded them from travelling far into the interconnected southern canals their individual decorative tradition remained a very tightly regional folk art confined to Lancashire and Yorkshire and inexplicably ignored by nearly everyone else, and nearly lost forever. Be grateful to Mike and Sam for this splendid piece of research, both documentary and celebratory. Mike Clarke is justly renowned as a thorough and thoughtful canal historian, particularly of the northern canals but it is his partnership with Sam Yates that makes this book so essential. Sam was apprenticed as a boatbuilder and boat decorator in Blackburn in the 1950s and it is his first hand experience and numerous colour diagrams and illustrations that lift this book into a category that is unlikely to be ever superseded. Highly recommended to absolutely anyone interested in canal art of the folk and popular variety. You can order the book online here. See also my January 2009 Off the Mainline about Leeds & Liverpool Canal decoration.

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It is a very different sort of canal art in Canal Linocuts by Eric Gaskell, a book soon to published by the artist himself which will also be available through this site. You will have already navigated past some of his printwork on the Canal Junction home page to get here and I hope you will be delighted with this new venture. Eric is a professional artist who has chosen the medium of linocut prints for a refreshing look at canals, a new eye on their architecture and engineering and the landscapes they pass through. Linocutting needs a skilful combination of hand and eye. Each mark of the print is hand-made, cut in or engraved into the surface of the block to create a white mark when it is inked up and printed, a negative mark in the positive printing surface. This process needs a careful and decisive visual analysis of the key elements to reduce the details of reality to a crisp image suitable for the block. The material also has a bit of a mind of its own, guiding what’s possible and creating happy accidents and the resulting artworks are a combination of several factors. Top of the list is Eric’s artistic judgement and balance, the style in which he presents this selection of canal scenes, the way he manipulates the stonework, the arches and lock beams whilst the essence of the real scene remains. All the prints all work well as abstract compositions, interesting arrangements of contrasting textures, strong lines and bright whites, pushing growth patterns into the brickwork and formalising trees and clouds into nature’s architecture. Each scene has a liveliness of its own and a good-humoured vitality but each print is actually a record of a recognisably precise place, some iconically well known to the canal traveller like Stoke Bruerne or Chirk aqueduct, others less so like Salford Junction in Manchester. Rather fittingly for the transport subject each picture is something of a journey in itself, from an exploration of the gravel or bricks underfoot, past the lockbeams and bridges, leading us into a sunlit and generally hopeful distance. Perspective may be pushed and planes flattened for the pattern making but Eric’s translation of each scene through the medium of the linocut print presents us with a whole new set of images, however familiar some of these places are to the canal enthusiast. They are already available as individual limited edition and signed prints but reproductions of a set of over twenty will be published as a complete book soon. Look out for the adverts in the waterway’s press, and on this site. Very collectable indeed. See www.canalprints.co.uk to buy original prints online and order the book.

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As regular readers of this column will know my especial interest in canal art has been a long time obsession with the painting traditions of the working narrow boats, the colours and designs, and especially the ‘roses and castles’ of their amazing folk art tradition. More recently however I have been concentrating on what is usually called ‘fine art’– paintings in oil and watercolours, many of them canal scenes, although I fear ‘fine’ is very much the aspiration at the moment rather than the achievement, alas. Howsoever, in pursuit of that muse I was recently huddled under the hedge by a canal bridge abuttment sketching a tiny cottage-cum-barn alongside the Montgomery canal.

It is a regular hazard of outdoor painting to look up and be shocked to find someone watching over your shoulder. Several times on this day I had that feeling, only to realise it was the presence of another piece of canal art just across the way, glimpsed from the corner of my eye. It was a carved wooden statue of a man, a nineteenth century canal worker one assumes, all flat cap, waistcoat and white shirt, holding a shovel. He is a bit larger than life size, about seven foot high, but carved with a simplified monumentality that makes him feel bigger still, a slightly un-nerving companion to have watching you for the morning.

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There are a lot of positive things to say about this piece of canal sculpture. It has a calm presence, a solid totemic solidity that honestly reflects its material, a vertical pillar of wood standing sentinel between canal and road. The colouring is subtle and thoughtful, the clothing stained rather than painted allowing the wood grain to show through, with the natural colour of varnished oak providing the tanned flesh colour for the face and arms. The facial features are simplified somewhat, more cipher than portrait, making him more gently symbolic than staringly individual, a good thing I think in this role as waymarker. The wood was obviously not seasoned well enough to begin with as this single log carving is already developing a lot of bad ‘shakes’– splits and cracks opening out along the grain that will let the weather in sooner or later. They are attractive at the moment, stressing the verticality and the nature of the material, but it does not bode well for longevity. The shovel is a bit of a surprise too, a real slim coal cutters shovel that contrasts oddly with the chunkiness of the statue proper. Perhaps it was an afterthought, or a replacement for something more sculptural for it only seems to be held in place with a couple of anachronistic pozi-drive screws.

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But my main problem is wondering why he needs to be there at all. What is he doing that is seen to be an improvement on his not being there? He is friendly enough, which must be better than being unfriendly, a large peg doll with the charm of a well-made toy. However, for me this jokeyness devalues the reality of both the history and the actuality of the canal – the tonnage of transport, the poorly paid labour of shovelling limestone and coal and breathing quicklime, the utilitarian grace of the architecture. In my eyes this charming chap is actually devaluing the work he is standing near to, that extraordinary sculptural installation of subtle curves, voids and volumes, a massive chunk of human craftsmanship in bricks and water, toned and coloured by age and nature. “What’s he talking about– what on earth is this masterpiece?” you may ask. Oh, nothing much, just another common canal bridge combined with a warehouse.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. No unauthorised reproduction. Page last updated: 27/01/2023.

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