The History of Canal Art


When home for canal boat dwellers was a cabin measuring about 8 feet long and no more than 7 feet wide it was inevitable perhaps that bright contrast paintwork should help to lighten up everyday surroundings.

Over two centuries canal boat artists established traditions of subject, design and style. Origins are obscure, romantic conjecture suggesting the influence of glass and pottery painters of the midlands having workshops near to the canals and then being imitated by the boatmen and dock painters of the time.

The style of painting romantic pictures and wreaths of flowers was widespread and well established by 1858 . It was alien to any other group seen at that time and given the generic term “Roses and Castles”.


Some favour a Gypsy connection but I think that this is adequately discounted by A.J. Lewery in his book “ Narrow boat Painting”

Many theories abound including the wealthy boat owner who had a boat painted lavishly with flowers as a symbol of his status or castles developed from the styles of clock face painters of the early nineteenth century.

Painted furniture glass and cheaper papiere –maché objects were  fashionable and very desireable by the middle classes and often featured flowers and castles. Did the boat people take these symbols without the subtleties and adopt them to a new tradition of decoration?

My own view along with Tony Lewery is that the tradition started in the Birmingham/Wolverhampton area where the vast majority of canal networks were. It would have been easy for the pottery painters to apply their skills to the canal vessels


Horses Nose Bowl

Boat people lived in a closed community. Most boat people were born and brought up on the canals and they tended to marry boat people, possibly nobody else fancied the life and hard work! Some did take jobs on dry land, especially when trading was collapsing in the 'fifties, but few non boat people decided to work the canals.

Designs were applied to the many objects associated with the narrow boats such as water cans ( These are not Buckby Cans) dippers, stools, cabin blocks and internal cabin items and in particular the back twin doors.

Other parts of the boat such as topstands, boxmasts, stands and uprights would be decorated with diamonds in lavish colours often in the particular pattern of the boat owners.

Canal carrying companies also had their own particular lettering styles and colours.

It is very important to note that a boat in “Dry Dock” was earning nothing whilst being decorated and thus the emphasis when the boat was being decorated was on speed. The painters had an obvious style of their own easily standing out from each other and very recognisable even today.


They would also mix their own paints from pigments and basic solvents, some that would never be allowed today.

So, What of the painters? Well, without a doubt the tradition was both created and expanded by the dock yard painters in the boat yards.  Style, flair and most of all speed were of the essence. “ Get it on and get the boat back out” – time is money.

Large carrying companies employed their own painters and apprentices now famous in the canal world, The Nurser Brothers, Jim & Isaiah Atkins, George Crawshaw, Bill Hodgeson, Charlie Adams, J. Harry Taylor, Ron Hough and Dennis Clarke.

More Modern painters include Brian Collins, Phil Speight, Dave Moore,Tony Lewery, Ian Kemp and Bunny Bunford.

Let there be no mistake, these people represent the best there is on the  “Cut”, people who not only practice their art with passion but who truly represent the traditions of real canal art

Perhaps it was not necessarily the “Canal Painter’s” yard near the canal but the painters yard that was near to the canal? Was the painter simply asked to update the boat décor to bring it in line with fashion?  It is clear that the narrow boat world did adopt these designs.

Money was short for the boatmen – especially once the railways started springing up – and it made sense for them to bring their wives and families on board to work the boat in place of a crew.

The wives and other women folk of the boatmen brought domestic pride and accomplishment onto the boats with them. Their space was limited, and this made them even more determined to make every item bright and attractive. Added to this was a desire to appear as cultivated and refined as possible in front of Victorian land-dwellers who had a tendency to look down their noses at the itinerant bargees with their dirty cargos and often illiterate children (being continuously on the move made consistent school attendance difficult).

With brightly painted romantic landscapes adorning every available surface, crocheted lace hanging in the cabin and everything scrubbed and polished, the boat men and women displayed their pride in their trade and created solidarity with their fellow boaters.


Visit our Canal Events page to see were we will be exhibiting our work in 2018




Website designed by Keith Gatland  - Copyright Keith Gatland 2016

29 March 2018