In 1950, four seminal books were published about our waterways: British Canals by Charles Hadfield and The Canals of England by Eric Maré presented an historical and architectural appraisal of our waterways, while The Inland Waterways of England by writer, civil engineer and co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association Tom Rolt helped raise awareness of the canal’s heritage and draw attention to their lasting value as a means of transport and leisure. Artist John O’Connor’s beautifully illustrated Canals, Barges and People took an entirely new approach. Through innovative and colourful renditions of boat life, O’Connor’s work helped to shape our impression of the waterways as a place for artistic flair and craftsmanship – firmly repositioning narrowboat decoration as part of the British folk-art scene and helping to shape the way our waterways are still seen to this day.
John O’Connor was born in Leicester in 1913. Together with his twin brother, he would often stay with his uncle in the Vale of Belvoir – a deeply rural and unassuming landscape of tranquil canals, overgrown ferns and old horses being bothered by flies on the edge of the borders of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.
Writing in Canals, Barges and People, he mulls over these childhood days spent beside a reservoir that fed the Grantham Canal, remembering the bricks of a bridge being “brilliantly coloured by the yellow green moss and efflorescent lichen which grows over them,” and reliving the time his beloved uncle crawled through a tunnel two-foot deep in water just to rescue five prize ducks that had accidentally waddled into the darkness.
These jaunts into the countryside seemed to leave an indelible impression on the young artist, resulting in a deep love of the England’s pastoral landscape, the canals and their inhabitants.
Romancing the waterways
After attending the Leicester College of Art, O’Connor went on to study under John Nash (a painter famous for his botanic works), Robert Austin (one of the finest line engravers of his generation) and the imperious artist and designer Eric Ravilious, who is known for his pastoral watercolours, lithographs and wood engravings of the South Downs in Sussex. It was from Ravilious that O’Connor gained his love of wood engraving.
In the late 1940s, his passion for Britain’s waterways took him to East Anglia, Uxbridge, Foxton, Rugby, Birmingham and beyond, and these trips served as the inspiration for the book he would go on to publish in 1950. His admiration for the boat people that he met along the way is palpable – in particular, their artistry, of which he wrote: “the canal would be a sadder place without the cheerful impudence of these painted boats.”
Though O’Connor’s words and reflections on canal life were eminently readable, it’s his wood-engravings which brought Canals, Barges and People to life. There’s a definite sense of nostalgia imbued upon the scenes – perhaps not an entirely accurate documentation but a romanticised version. In one image, a cat stands smugly on the stern of Rose 4 as a duck paddles by. Elsewhere, boats are carefully looked after in the yard and a horse pulls a barge along the towpath. Aided by the large blocked-out areas around the edges, O’Connor also managed to create a feeling of cosy interiors, filling the middle of his pictures with kettles, lamps and other decorative paraphernalia. The subject matter proved perfect for his finesse with patterns. From the diamond and heart designs of the boat exteriors to the grain of the wood and the ripple of water, each engraving was a work of diligent composition. He was helping to shape the pastoral and leisurely image, which people now associate with life on the canals but at the time was a far cry from the daily grind of previous portrayals.
His pictures are also remarkable for their innovative use of colour, created by overprinting the engravings with coloured linocuts. It was a revolutionary technique at the time, which gave the illustrations an added vibrancy. His use of red, yellow and green was in keeping with the increasingly rich nature of boat design and softened some of the sharpness associated with the typically monochrome engravings.
O’Connor’s love of canal life can be seen in various other works, in particular the striking cover and internal illustrations for Richard Ingram’s England, An Anthology (1989) and The Wood Engravings of John O’Connor published by Whittington Press in the same year, but it is Canals, Barges and People that still represents his finest work. At the end book, having bid farewell to a family on a houseboat leaving for Brentford, he reflected that “the closing door shut off the bright lamp-light from the world” His imaginative engravings re-opened this door so that others could peep inside.
Read the book Unicorn Press reprinted Canals, Barges and People in 2014 as part of their ‘In Arcadia’ series. There’s also a 1989 publication from Whittington Press called The Wood-Engravings of John O’Connor.
For more stories on narrowboat heritage and culture head to http://canalrivertrustwaterfront.org.uk
Photos: Barge John O’Connor. Wood engraving from O’Connor’s book for Art and Technics, published in 1950.