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English Canal Crafts

Around half of Britain's population live within 5 miles of the country's waterways network, but only few venture onto the towpaths and riverbanks to discover a secret world. It is inhabited by swans, coots, moorhens, grebes, kingfishers and herons and its architecture is of locks, aqueducts, lifts, bridges, tunnels and wharves.

Waterways such as the Grand Union, Trent & Mersey, Leeds & Liverpool, and landmarks like Braunston Turn, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Caen Hill and Standedge Tunnel are as familiar to the boater as the underground is to the Londoner. The pace of the waterways allows no time to rush but plenty to reflect, and the inhabitants are few enough to greet individually.

A brief history of the canals

The need for a faster, cheaper and more reliable way to transport heavy goods led to the creation of the canals. Raw materials had to be moved from source to manufacturing areas, and finished goods and agricultural produce taken to markets. River transport was extended from the mid 18th century by the building of canals.

The impact of the canals was huge – promoters and speculators made or lost fortunes and the price of coal could halve when delivered by canal. Engineers such as Brindley, Rennie and Telford made their reputations, while the navigators or 'navvies' who dug the canals broke their backs.

The families working the narrow boats had a life of hard work and difficult living - long, long days of loading, travelling and unloading in all weathers. At night, once the horse had been seen to, the whole family would share a space no bigger than 10ft x 7ft to wash, eat, and sleep.

Over time, competition from faster and more efficient railways and then road haulage eroded commercial activity and the decline of the waterways was inexorable.

The publication of 'Narrow Boat' by LTC Rolt in 1944 led to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association which recognised the waterways' potential for leisure and is largely responsible for today's network.

The origins of canal painting

There is no consensus as to the origins of canal painting and the illiteracy of the majority of the canal population means that written records are rare. Some point to the similarity of the traditional narrow boat painting to the decoration of gypsy caravans. Others argue that as families moved from cottage to boat they couldn't grow roses round the door but they could paint them.

Traditional motifs and colour schemes

Canal painting uses stylised representations of flowers and landscapes and there are several recurring motifs. Backgrounds are generally dark colours (black, green, blue and claret) while foreground colours are bright (red, yellow, white, pink, light blue and lime green). This contrast creates the striking canal craft style which, although similar in some ways to other folk arts, does have a unique quality.

Roses – Frequently used as the central focus for a piece and on larger pieces several may be clustered together using a mix of red, yellow, pink and white.

Daisies – Commonly used to complement the roses, these are often painted nestled in between the surrounding leaves. They are also sometimes used as edging and painted as garlands or chains with small leaves in-between the flowers.

Forget-me-nots – Again, these flowers are used to complement the central rose motif. They are usually created from a yellow centre with 6 round blue petals. A circle of small white dots is painted around the centre and a small pink crescent added to the yellow as a finishing touch.

Castles – In contrast to the flowers, traditional canal craft artists often painted small landscapes that usually included castles, a small bridge across a stream or river and a mountainous area in the background.

Technique and materials

The original canal painters did not labour over their work. They painted quickly, snatching moments here and there to decorate their 'boat homes' and their belongings. A confident flick of the wrist, this way then that, produced a great sense of energy in the final decoration.

Early canal craft painters would have used 'home-made' oil paints where pigment was ground to a powder and mixed with linseed oil or something similar. Contemporary painters usually use either enamels or gloss paint.

Philip and Stephanie Province

For us, the idea of living full time on a narrow boat crept in over a period of about 2 years. We were tempted by the promise of a new perspective and a simpler, more creative lifestyle. When a change in circumstances gave us the opportunity to make this a reality, we grabbed it!

We began living on our narrow boat 'Wumpus' in April 2013 and ‘continuously cruised’ the waterways of England for over two years. We saw many examples of canal crafts on our travels and our interest in traditional narrow boat art led us to produce our own style of canal crafts which we sold from our boat and at festivals.

Although we have now returned to land we continue to produce a range of our English Canal Crafts and are also happy to take commissions for bespoke pieces.

Contemporising canal painting

Concerns about the art dying out have been raised by some from previous generations of canal painters. By taking the original motifs and using them in more contemporary ways - decorating jewellery, bookmarks and gift boxes, perhaps we can keep alive the essence of the traditional motifs and the spirit of the early artists.

We are currently exploring new possibilities decorating fabrics and a wider range of home and gift ware.