Part One.....'Gaily Painted Barge buckets'.Many of the early explorers of our waterway system described their adventures as if from some newly discovered foreign and exotic land and this was particularly so when they encountered the working population of the canals who are usually given an all too brief mention. Likewise early descriptions of the indigenous folk art of the canals - the 'Roses and Castles' of the narrow boats are rare and usually dismissed with a few words such as 'the gay decoration of the barges' or referring to Buckby cans as 'Gaily painted Barge buckets
PART ONE….‘GAILY PAINTED BARGE BUCKETS’.
Many of the early explorers of our waterway system described their adventures as if from some foreign and exotic land and this was particularly so when they came across the canal working population who are rarely mentioned. Likewise early descriptions of the indigenous folk art of the canals –‘The Roses and Castles’ of the narrow boats are rare and usually dismissed with a few words such as ‘the gay decoration of the barges’ or referring to Buckby cans as ‘gaily painted barge buckets’.
This was all to change however with the publication in 1946 of ‘English Popular & Traditional Art’ by the historian Margaret Lambert & Enid Marx who was an artist/designer. They had been collecting examples of early English folk or popular art as it was sometimes called since the early 1930’s. In particular they had collected many examples of English Narrow Boat decoration and these items and much else were bequeathed to the museum at Compton Verney, Warwickshire where they can be seen to this day.
It is to another artist however that we owe the honour of being the first to describe the ‘rose & castle’ decoration of the narrow boats in detail. An article published in the ‘Architectural Review’ in the same year as Marx & Lamberts book contained 8 pages of a first hand detailed verbal description of boat decoration together with drawn illustrations by the artist Barbara Jones.
Title page of Barbara Jones article in ‘The Architectural Review’ Dec 1946.
‘Interior of cabin’. Illustration from Barbara Jones article.
Cabin top, ‘ellum’ & rams head decoration by Barbara Jones.
This 1946 article was reprinted & given a chapter of its own in a more general survey of British Folk Arts by Barbara Jones entitled ‘The Unsophisticated Arts’ published in 1951. This covered such things as fairground art, tattoos,seaside art and all things humble & hand made by the working population. Barbara Jones remarks in her book that all these things were fast disappearing and that she didn’t think that more than a handful would survive the next few years. It’s a fascinating book quirky and full of the most obscure information and it has recently been republished with a contribution from Peter Blake the artist.
‘Special Canals Number. The Architectural Review’ July 1949.
Well there he is – old Joe Hollinshead, retired boatman, staring out at us from the front cover of one of Britain's most prestigious professional magazines in July 1949. The whole magazine was ,most unusually for the time, devoted solely to Britain's canals – their history, development, present state and future. The article had been written by a freelance architect and photographer – Eric De Mare with the assistance of the newly formed Inland Waterways Association and in particular its members Tom Rolt of ‘Narrow Boat’ fame and Charles Hadfield (Canal Historian).
Title page of ‘Special Canals Number’ 1949.
De Mare also a member of the IWA had in the previous year (1948) completed a 600 mile journey along the canals in a converted ex army pontoon and as an accomplished photographer had taken what have subsequently been acknowledged as some of the finest photographs ever taken of Britain's canal heritage & its architectural structures and working population.
Eric de Mare’s photographs from ;The Canals of England’ First Edt’n 1950.
Like Barbara Jones article, Eric De Mare’s photographic essay was subsequently published in book form in 1950 under the title of ‘The Canals of England’. Justly acclaimed as one of the four pivotal books of the new canal age it has been through many editions and is I think still in print to this day.
After reading these two articles I wondered why was it that these two articles each producing notable and landmark books appeared suddenly after a period so long devoid of any interest in Inland Waterways.? The immediate answer would obviously seem to be, that in Eric De Mares case, his interest was kindled by his involvement in the early years of the IWA. This organization was in itself a product of two individuals interests. They were of course Tom Rolt & Robert Aickman..
In Tom Rolt’s case the publication of his classic and immediately popular book ‘Narrow Boat’ had fuelled an interest in waterways & ultimately the emergence of a new leisure age for the canals.
So how did ‘Narrow Boat’ come to be written ?. Was it just the product of one mans interest & obsession or were there other factors which influenced the production of this book ? Was it just this one book that initiated a new canal age?
In my next blog I hope to deal with the wider social scene and the neo romantic movement which I think influenced the emergence of the books and articles discussed in this blog.