Photo by Julian Anderson
Words by Peter Watts
You can see the most unexpected sights along the canals: brightly painted boats with improbable names, surreal street art on old canal walls and, on the Grand Union Canal at Kensal Rise, a truly bizarre and unique sculpture garden. When I first noticed this in the 1990s, it consisted of a handful of what appeared to be garden gnomes on the offside of the canal around Westbourne Park near Trellick Tower. Over time, the handful grew to a small army and was joined by other ornaments strung along a long stretch of canalside wall. Eventually, there was a vast shrine of statues, surrounded by coloured tiles, plaster faces, mirrors and reliefs.
For years, this extraordinary landmark was known only to canal users. However, last year the full story emerged. It was created by Gerry Dalton, who moved to London from Ireland in 1959 and worked in a series of manual jobs including in sorting offices and kitchens. After retirement, Dalton set about transforming the world around him. He filled his one-bedroom flat with a series of models of brightly painted castles, churches and tower blocks made from plaster and wood. These were then decorated with found objects.
This self-created universe flowed like a wave into his garden and then along the edge of the canal in the form of around 150 concrete sculptures modelled on figures from history, myth and Dalton’s own imagination. Often made of white with distinctive red-ringed eyes, these aren’t, technically speaking, particularly accomplished but they make up for that in sheer numbers, and contain within them the enthusiasm, imagination and dedication of their creator. It was called Gerry’s Pompeii after Dalton’s comment that “they’ll be astonished by what they’ll find in my garden in years to come. It’ll be like Pompeii or something – Gerry’s Pompeii.”
When Dalton died last year, there was worldwide coverage of his outsider art – that is, art made by non-professionals, often described as naïve because of the self-taught means of expression. Outsider art raises a few issues. Does art need to be “good” to be enjoyed? Would Dalton have even considered himself an artist? What should happen to it next? The latter remains unclear – although there is a crowdfunding project to raise money for the collection – but what is undeniable is that Dalton’s alternative universe brought much pleasure and a touch of mystery to the daily lives of the thousands of people who must have seen it over the decades, many of whom would probably rarely visit a gallery to see conventional or curator-approved artworks.
Gerry’s creation seems particularly appropriate for the location as some of the best known art related to canals – the rose and castle-style that adorned the original working boats and remains popular today – was another form of outsider art. This was created by canal users, usually the wives and children of working boatmen, for the simple pleasure of enlivening their living and working environment and doing the same for those around them. These artists were almost certainly untrained and their work remains largely unexplored by academics and unappreciated by experts, but these wonderfully painted boats have become integral to the waterways and the style remains popular today as one of the folk arts of the canal.
Although it’s not yet known what will happen to Gerry’s Pompeii, there is some precedent for such creative colonisation of canalside space by locals. Freda’s Garden is found in a stretch of the Aire & Calder Navigation at Knottingley between Cow Lane Bridge and Hunter’s Bridge. It’s known as Freda’s Garden after a woman who lived in a house adjoining the canal. Freda only had a small garden of her own so started to plant a variety of flowers along the towpath like a prototype guerrilla gardener – that is, urban gardeners who go out at night to plant flowers in spaces such as roundabouts and central reservations of busy roads. After Freda’s death, the Friends of Freda’s Garden community group was formed. They pledged to restore the garden, which had quickly become overgrown, and started to replant the area with ornamental, native and nectar-rich species to encourage bees and pollinating insects. Through the Canal & River Trust’s adoption project, the group are now caretakers of this special stretch of water, which is once again a blaze of colour, bringing unexpected joy to all who see it.
More unexpected art beside our waterways
North East: Sculptures on the Selby Canal, Calder & Hebble Navigation and River Aire
A short walk along the Selby Canal from the junction with the River Ouse is a large metal artwork by David Mayne that looks like an arrowhead or the bow of a boat. It shows the three swans of the town’s coat of arms, the anglers and cyclists that use the canal and then various boats – a keelboat, sloop, paddle steamer and barge. Below that are images of a sheaf of corn, lock gates and cooling towers. Right at the bottom is the date 1788, when the canal was finished. Over at Sowerby Bridge on the Calder & Hebble Navigation there’s a striking bronze sculpture by Roger Burnett of lock-keeper Richard Tiffany and a small boy pushing a lock gate, while in the centre of Leeds close to the River Aire is the Henry Moore Institute, where you can see one of the largest collections of sculpture in Britain.
North West: The Nantwich horse and Ellesmere Sculpture Trail, Shropshire Union Canal
This marvellously obdurate towpath horse can be seen alongside the Shropshire Union at Nantwich. It was made from old lock gates by artists John Merrill and Julian Taylor so is constructed from weathered wood and has a mane of rusted iron. Nearby is a plaque showing the route of the canal with miniature versions of the horse and other sculpture created by local schoolchildren. Further along the Shropshire Union Canal is the Ellesmere Sculpture Trail, which features a number of pieces of art around Ellesmere that either depict elements relevant to the canal such as boats or fish, or are made from traditional canal materials like wood salvaged from a canal yard.
South West: Somerset Space Walk, Bridgwater & Taunton Canal
One of the most imaginative artistic uses of the canal comes on the 14-mile Bridgwater & Taunton, where local artist Pip Youngman has created a scale model of the solar system in sculptural form. A model of the Sun sits in the dead centre of the canal at Maunsel Lock, and then the nine planets from Mercury to Pluto are embedded in plinths at appropriate distances in either direction – whether you go north to Bridgwater or south to Taunton. The Sun and planets are made to scale – so while the Sun is the size of a small car, Pluto, nearly seven miles away, is the size of a pea.
South east: Gyosei Art Trail, Grand Union Canal
Milton Keynes is famed for its public art but while most people know about the cows, far fewer are aware of the Gyosei Art Trail on the Grand Union Canal. This was conceived to commemorate a Japanese boarding school that once occupied the site in Linford and there are eight pieces of work on either side of the canal, all of which reference either the canal, nature or Japan. They include Andrew Kay’s impressively muscular sculpture of a shire horse and some lovely enamel panels in Japanese style of local birds by Laura Boswell. In Campbell Park in the centre of Milton Keynes are more prominent sculptures such as the landmark Chain Reaction and the Neolithic Gnomon.
West Midlands: Coventry Canal Sculpture Trail, Coventry Canal
With Coventry due to become the UK City Of Culture in 2021, public art will soon figure prominently around the city. But before that takes place, you can head down to the Coventry Canal to see the 27 pieces of art that are spaced out between the canal basin and Hawkesbury Junction. These include a large representational bronze of James Brindley planning the canal in the basin as well as a number of sculptured seats and benches, heritage markers commemorating the history and architecture of the canal, and a steel sculpture of a woman in traditional boating costume. Several pieces also reference the nature and wildlife of the canal.
East Midlands: Water Rail Way, River Witham
Stroll or cycle along the Water Rail Way, which follows the River Witham on the course of an old railway line between Lincoln and Boston, and you might stumble upon a large wooden pig. This is a Lincolnshire Curly Coat pig to be exact, a species that became extinct in 1972 and was recreated in wood by artist Nigel Sardeson using an elm that had died of Dutch elm disease. It’s one of several animal sculptures along this river route – there’s a pike, a Lincoln Longwool sheep and a Lincoln Red cow – alongside a number of others that relate to local poet Arthur Lord Tennyson. In Lincoln itself you can see the massive Empowerment, two abstract figures made from aluminium and steel who meet in a huge arc over the river.
Posted on 13/03/2020