The origins of English narrow boat decoration may never be fully ascertained but Tony Lewery's researches reach back through time to the earliest known descriptions both verbal and pictorial of this uniquely English folk art.
His book is quite the best of its kind being both scholarly and very readable and is heartily recommended.
It now seems reasonably certain that the decoration appeared quite early on and certainly before 1858 when we have the first verbal description in Charles Dicken's magazine 'Household Words'. If only the article had been accompanied by illustrations !!.
Tony Lewery offers this illustration found in a book published in 1875- 'Life on the Upper Thames' as being the first known illustration of narrow boat decoration.
This book had been previously published in serial form throughout 1873 in 'The Art Journal' with a rather different illustration which gives slightly more information.
With chapters on waterside structures such as flash locks,ballasting, eel grigs,, osier cutting and peeling and dozens more :- the book is a mine of information on long vanished riverside life.
A NEW FIND.
The etching as published in the Art Journal 1873.
Appearing at auction recently the colour sketch above appears to be the original watercolour and gouache painting for the illustration in the book.Signed by the artist it will be a valuable piece of original source material which advances our knowledge a little since this now appears to be possibly the earliest known colour illustration of the canal folk art we know today.
Comparing the coloured original with the black & white copy it would seem that by the time the etching came to be published a boat chimney and Buckby can had been added to the original watercolour work. I have no idea why this should be so but it is interesting to find that the Buckby can was at this early date, in existence, in exactly the same form as we know it today.
Postscript :- Again in Lewerys 'Flowers Afloat' an even earlier (1832) illustration on the side of a boat on the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire canal boat appears to show some signs of early decoration of flowers and rudimentary diamond patterning which could be an early stage in the development of the ' rose & castle' decoration.
Other illustrations may yet come to light & somewhere there may be an amateurs watercolour (signed & dated preferably)of a canal scene complete with boat & decorated cabin side painted at an earlier date.