The Past is just the Prologue

Write what you know says the old saying and after more years than I really wish to be reminded about I know something about painting canal castles. However I still do not know why. Why castles? Why are they painted on canal boats and why is it so important that they should be painted on boats anyway? For me it is still more like an act of faith, part of an accepted ritual for keeping elephants away. You haven’t seen any elephants? Well then, it must be working.


Aesthetically the well-painted working narrow boat was a complex balance of many elements, all blending utility with grace. There was the shape of the boat and the quality of the craftsman’s work that affected the design both in the big broad sweeps of the sheer of the hull and the quality of the detailing, the finishing touches. There were the colours, the intensity of the colour and the balance of the tonal contrast from dark to bright and there were the patterns, the hearts and diamonds and the swooping curves of the ogee arch. Finally, tucked away in this mass of abstract painted textures and shapes was the naturalistic decorative art of the boatpainter, the swags of flowers and the castle landscapes. Why? What made them so right in the industrial canals of the nineteenth century that a traditional working boat without them looks naked and undressed?

Who started it and why? Whose castles are they—the boatpainter’s or the boatman’s? Perhaps they actually belong to a period, a particular way of thinking– part of the zeitgeist, the spirit of that time? If that is so what actual message do they carry from that past? They do talk to me but only in a garbled language that I cannot fully understand.


Our earliest written reference is still John Hollingshead writing in Household Words magazine in 1858 about a couple of landscapes painted on the cabin side of his Grand Junction Canal fly boat. Each has “a lake, a castle, a sailing boat, and a range of mountains painted after the style of the great teaboard school of art.” A teaboard was what we would now call a teatray, and his slightly disparaging remark is likening the boat painting to the cheap commercial mass productions of the japanned ware industries of Wolverhampton and Birmingham. However, mass production then meant hand painting on an industrial scale with workshops full of painters, or perhaps paintresses, applying the designs with practised skill at great speed. Today we would probably be rather more impressed. Oh, if only we had some well-provenanced examples so that we could know what he was really talking about. Were they crude, cheap and childlike, or little graceful delights like those on the painted dials of grandfather clocks of the period? Understanding his description depends so much on understanding his own taste, experience and expectations of that time.

Castle panel

These ruminations were focussed for me during a recent pleasurable job helping a friend improve her boat painting skills. She and her husband are Cheshire/ Shropshire people and they very properly want their boat to carry the north-western style of boat painting, the ‘knobstick’ style of Bill Hodgson of Stoke on Trent. So we set to work for a day to try and analyse and emulate his style of castle painting. Whether one likes his style or not (and I admit to reservations) he is and was an important link to the boat painting world of the past. When he married in 1908 he already defined himself as a boat painter and he practised that trade exclusively almost non-stop until his death in 1957. He was a prolific painter and happily there are many examples of his work still about. What is also crucial is that he had set out in life in the 1890s with the ambition of being a proper artist, painting proper pictures in frames to hang on the wall. Thus he came to the job of boat painting with a knowledge of contemporary aesthetics and a rather more developed set of artistic skills than many of his contemporaries, most of whom were primarily boatbuilders. He was also already at work only fifty years after Hollingshead’s description so whilst we were studying and copying Bill’s work we could feel that we were nearly reconnecting with at least one style of the nineteenth century again.

Castle panel

Hodgson’s work is fairly easy to recognise for he painted to a very set formula that seems to have varied little over the many years of his working life. He did paint some fairly elaborate improvisations on his usual themes late in his life but his run-of-the-mill boat decoration usually falls into a characteristic set pattern. His castles are usually symmetrical, starting with a pair of towers flanking a gatehouse placed centrally on a hill, with bushes bracketing the building on either side like bookends. But it is not the buildings themselves that are so memorable so much as the heavy, almost gloomy atmosphere that he creates with his particular style of paintwork and his choice of colours. He starts by setting his scene against a striking colourful sunset with distant mountains darkly outlined against the red of the setting sun giving them something of the threatening prescience of Mordor. In order to create enough contrast to make his buildings read against this lurid background he resorts to shading all his towers on both sides with a deep burnt sienna firmly outlined in black, each decisively crowned with three massive black crenellations. This leaves the buildings apparently theatrically floodlit from the front, awaiting the entry of the brigands and cruel nobility that such a set surely deserves. The only notes of lightness are the white sails of the boats becalmed in the lake on either side.

What is he telling us? What piece of late Victorian sentiment is expressed in these haunting scenes of waiting? Is it Bill doing the talking or is he expressing just what the boat population wanted him to say for them? His work was immensely popular with the northern narrow boatmen for a very long time but is it deeply meaningful or really just a bit of painted cheering up? I’ll just keep on keeping the elephants away for now.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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