It’s a cold, early spring morning and Graham Brown is sitting crouched over a four-bar electric heater in a corner of his workshop on an industrial estate in Frampton-On-Severn, Gloucestershire. Balancing a palette with his left hand, his right delicately traces the word “TENDER” in striking red capitals onto the back of a denim jacket with a fine brush. “Painting on clothes is a new one for me,” he chuckles, “but I’ve done all sorts over the years.”
A narrowboat painter by trade, the jackets, along with a limited number of wallets decorated with painted roses, are part of a commission Brown accepted for Tender, a menswear label run by designer William Kroll who lives in nearby Stroud. One of the jackets, which features a castle on the back painted in the classic ‘Roses and Castles’ style characteristic of narrowboat decoration, is destined for the fashion department of Harvey Nichols, Azerbaijan.
“I admit I do quite like the idea there’s a little bit of Gloucestershire going on display over there,” says Brown, his grin obscured by a luxuriant white beard.
Now in his mid-seventies, Brown has been working brush in hand along the waterways for over five decades. All around the workshop is evidence of his life’s work, with brightly decorated lanterns and buckets hidden like jewels amongst the empty paint tins, lengths of carved timber and nautical bric-a-brac.
Raised in Longlevens on the edge of Gloucester, Brown’s family were monumental masons who worked on local churches and stone buildings, including the city’s spectacular cathedral. A talented draughtsman as a teenager, he was originally sent to study at art college, before joining local signwriter Bill Rolfe as an apprentice aged 16.
“We did a bit of everything back then,” he says. “Shop fronts, vans, lorries. Everything was lettered by hand. But that side of the trade is finished now. Ninety percent of our work today is boats.”
It was, Brown says, a transitional time on the waterways during his youth, with Gloucester Docks shifting from commercial and industrial trade to providing moorings for leisure boats. “The pleasure trade was just coming in,” he says. “People were buying old commercial boats and converting them, so it was still a busy place.” As a result, Brown says he’s never had to chase business.
At the dry dock in Gloucester he decorates boats completed by local builders R. W. Davis & Son; his other customers float past on the canal. He doesn’t have a website or email address, his only concession to advertising is the yellow van parked outside his workshop on which he’s lettered his name and mobile phone number.
Today Brown lives with his partner, Ann, on a narrowboat moored on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal which flows less than 100 yards from his workshop. “With a boat, if you do get tired of one place you move on somewhere else,” he says. “Though I’ve got a permanent mooring now that I’ve been on for nearly 20 years!”
He also admits he’s never travelled extensively on the waterways. When work takes him outside Gloucestershire, up to Droitwich, say, or south to Bristol, he usually drives rather than sails. The rare days he has off he also tends to spend on dry land, restoring vintage horse-drawn vehicles.
While the painstaking craft of veterans such as Brown is still in demand, he’s aware there is little new talent entering the business: “Back when I started there were still quite a few signwriters about, but we’re getting lesser in number all the time.” Brown’s own children have opted for other careers – his son works installing high-end audio equipment – while the promising 20-something craftsman who was assisting on some of his bigger jobs recently opted to start his own window-cleaning business rather than continue as an apprentice.
By contrast, Brown has always seen himself as part of an ongoing folk art tradition, one which can be traced back to the great flowering of narrowboat decoration in the mid-19th century when boat cabins were first adorned with garlands of flowers and fantastical landscapes.
Even now, he never signs his work. “People are always saying to me, ‘Graham, can you put your name on it?’” he says. “And I’m very reluctant to. It’s not me that’s important, it’s the tradition.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: LEX BECKETT