Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Day Out at Compton Verney & British Canal Art (and other things).


‘Popular English Art’  by Noel Carrington & Clarke Hutton. 1946.


I have written in a previous blog of the first recorded mention of the painting and decoration of the English canal  narrow boat (see my Dec 2110 blog – On the Canals in 1858). This was unfortunately just a written description and as vivid and detailed as it is, another 15 years passed before we have our first visual idea of this painting in an engraving by H R Robertson in ‘ Life on the Upper Thames’  published in 1873. I will be showing this and some of the other superb engravings from this book in a future blog.

My purpose here is to take the story on from this point and although we have various mentions of ‘ the gaily painted barge decoration’  and ‘ the decorated pails and buckets’  in various accounts of canal voyages made during the subsequent half century it is not until the years of the second world war and after that the boat decoration is recognized as forming part of a much wider British Folk Art tradition.

Noel Carrington's book was the first to include Canal Boat Art in his book of British folk art in 1946. Carrington was the brother of Dora Carrington the artist of Bloomsbury & Lytton Strachey fame. Before WW2 he had edited Country Life before becoming involved with Penguin Books at the outset of their publication in the late 1930’s.

Carrington introduced a series called King Penguins during the war and their colour printed board covers as in ‘British Popular Art ‘ were often designed by Clarke Hutton.


Published in 1946.                                          Published in 1951.


Margaret Lambert a historian and Enid Marx an artist designer are generally credited with recognizing and initiating an  interest in Canal boat art in particular  and British naive art in general. Since the early 1930’s they had amassed a huge collection of paintings and artefacts from all over the country. Nothing escaped their eyes – fabrics,inn & shop signs,fairground items, corn dollies, cig cards , metalwork and ephemera off all kinds – all found a place in their collection.

This collection  is now housed at Compton Verney in the Warwickshire Countryside and a visit there is a really good day out where you can see amongst the Measham Teapots and Old Canal Art, many other strange and wonderful things and yes they do have a cafe.

Enid Marx was a fellow student of Eric Ravelious who in turn taught John O’Connor (see my Jan Post) and its noteworthy that all these artists had an interest in ordinary, very humble and yet quirky subjects and artefacts as indeed did Barbara Jones…..

Barbara Jones’s work ‘The Unsophisticated Arts’  was published in 1951.



My favourite and probably the most scholarly and yet quirky of all the books mentioned in this article is this lovely book which emanated from a series of articles in the Architectural Review published throughout the 1940’s. This review deserves a separate article of its own since it played an unacknowledged role in bringing together  and publishing for the first time articles,art & photographs by young artists and designers such as Barbara Jones & Eric De Mare. In a future article I hope to show some of these early articles which were the precursors of mature works such as ‘Unsophisticated Arts’ and ‘The Canals of England’.

Barbara Jones was interested in all things odd,unacknowledged and quirky – follies,fairgrounds,shop signs,grottoes and all forms of popular art. She helped to organize the 1951 Festival of Britain and the ‘Black Eyes & Lemonade’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the same year, one of the first exhibitions of popular art to be seen in this country. One of her book jacket designs will be familiar to some and I show this below.


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