Canalboat Painting

Canalboat Painting (sometimes called "Narrowboat Painting") is the most well-known folk art of England. It is associated with the narrowboats that plied England's waterways in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many have been preserved in seaworthy condition, fully-decorated with profuse clusters of roses painted in red, blue, green and yellow on backgrounds of black or dark green. Other than roses, simplistic and naive daisies, marigold, dahlias, chrysanthemums, pansies and primroses plus hybrids of flowers created by the quick hand of the boat painters were also a feature of traditional narrowboats.

Pictorial insets featuring castles, huge country houses, churches, cottages, lighthouses, portraits of the owners’ dogs, horses and the head of the "Players" cigarette advertisement sailor were also frequently painted.

Folk Art - Canalboat  Painting

An IKEA watering which I transformed into a traditional piece of "canalware".

The roses formed of comma strokes usually surround the insets or are painted as borders as part of the design. The roses were painted almost to a formula – ovals of leaves are formed in the background, then veined and shadowed. Using the tip of the brush, short yellow or orange strokes are painted at the edges of the leaves to suggest movement. Circles are then painted as the basis for the roses which are then formed using contrasting, different sized comma strokes. These simple brushstrokes enabled the barge painters to complete their painting rather quickly.

Folk Art - Canalboat  Roses

An old kitchen roll holder was given a new lease of life with comma stroke roses in the canalboat style.

Castle scenes, which were the most commonly used, also have very strong predominant features in Canalboat Painting – they were usually painted on a white background, with blue skies and white clouds. The castle would be set on a hill or rise and you would quite often see more hills in the background. There is usually water and a bridge in front of the castle and sometimes, trees next to the castle. Sailing boats in the distance are another feature. The castles are painted stylistically, usually with towers and a triangular flag at the top. Roofs were usually red.

Origins of Canalboat Painting 

Historically, the origins of this folk art remain a mystery. Nobody really knows where it came from. It was first written about in the mid 1800’s. It has been suggested that it may be a leftover Victorian commercial art nurtured by the old-fashioned culture of the canal folk to elevate their status. Some say it originated elsewhere - similar styles of folk art existed in Scandinavia and Germany at the time. Hindeloopen, painted in the 18th century was also only across the channel and the castles painted in the scenery sometimes did appear more Mediterranean than English, even French.

Folk Art - Canalboat  Painting

A castles and roses design painted on the dark green background of a tissue box holder. Adapted from a design by Chris Wallace.

It is said that Canalboat Painting flourished when women were brought on board the boats to help their husbands as "unpaid crew" on long journeys. These narrow canalboats became tiny floating homes. To occupy themselves, to emulate the more comfortable surroundings in their homes and to distinguish their boats from others' they painted the cabins, doors, cupboards and furniture on board their boats. Even utensils were not spared.

The now familiar Buckby buckets, milk cans, metal boxes, coal scuttles, jugs, even the wash basin, headlamp, of the boat, and the horse's feed tin were covered with roses and landscape in strong primary colours. Later these decorations extended to the exterior of the boats and included lettering and scrollwork to identify the boat. Many of the domestic so-called "canalware" are highly sought after as collectibles today.

Folk Art - Canalboat Roses

A bell painted with canalboat roses - found in a flea market in Swindon, UK.


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Books to help you

Paint Roses and Castles: Traditional Narrow Boat Painting for Homes and Boats
Anne Young




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