Architecture and the waterways

In 1950, after travelling around 600 miles of our network, world-renowned architectural photographer Eric De Maré published The Canals Of England. It remains one of the greatest books about waterways. Join us as we look back at the life and works of a man who continued to celebrate the significance of canals throughout the post-war era.


A barge crossing the Barton Swing Aqueduct, Greater Manchester. Eric de Mare, 1955 (Historic England)

In 1948, the architectural photographer Eric De Maré set off from Hampton Court on a journey around the country’s ailing and forgotten canal system aboard what he described as a ‘floating caravan based on an Army pontoon and powered by paddle wheels’. The trip through Wales and the Midlands would result in De Maré’s breakthrough book, and also help lay the foundations for the formation of what De Maré described as ‘a lively Waterways Cult’. As a direct result, people began to rediscover and reinvent the nation’s waterways, the benefits of which we are still feeling today through the work of the Canal & River Trust and countless volunteer organisations.

De Maré was born in 1910 of Swedish parents, and attended the Architectural Association School in 1928. Upon graduation, he worked in Sweden and then different London architectural firms before joining the camouflage department during the Second World War. Following the war, he moved into publishing, editing the Architects Journal before he turned freelance and decided to explore the canals. De Maré had just read Tom Rolt’s classic book Narrow Boat, and set off, as he remembered in 1987, in ‘hopeful search for architectural charms surviving from the Canal Era in the form of functional bridges, aqueducts, warehouses, tunnels, lock paddles and bollards infinite in their variety of bold and richly textured shapes. I was not disappointed.’

Barton Swing Aqueduct, Greater Manchester. The aqueduct was opened in 1893 and carries the Bridgewater Canal across the Manchester Ship Canal. Eric de Mare, 1955 (Historic England)

The series of photographs De Maré took on his jaunt were published first in a special issue of the Architectural Review and then in De Maré’s book The Canals Of England in 1950. It remains one of the best books about canals, containing dozens of wonderful images of waterways, boats and boatmen, as well as maps and excellent, detailed essays on the history, use and future of canals. It mostly marked a celebration of De Maré’s personal fascination with ‘the satisfying architectural form to be found on the canal which belongs to the functional tradition of design’. He admired the simple structure of the canal – the things that made it work, such as locks and bridges. These were largely unadorned by unnecessary architectural decoration but were still beautiful, something De Maré felt was caused by a combination of the strict engineering discipline required to build canals and the fact the architecture had to work in close partnership with the natural landscape.

The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, c1950. (Canal & River Trust archives)

In his photography, he captured the way cuttings, bridges and tunnels were absorbed into the surrounding land. He adored the simple geometric drama of aqueducts and celebrated the way locks and bridges provided ‘an unending series of lessons in handling that subtle but vital element of landscape design, the transition from level to level’. He also photographed those smaller items of canal infrastructure which he termed ‘accidental sculptures’ – weathered bollards and iron lock paddles – as well as the texture and forms on wood, stone and metal created by rubbing tow lines. His photographs of boats focussed on the details rather than the whole – things like fenders, tillers and strange traditional decorations like a white horse’s tail hanging from a rudder post. This was the vernacular and folklore of the waterway, the skeleton on which everything was laid.

De Maré wrote that the canals were ‘a continuous thread running parallel with the historical styles but owing little or nothing to them… its constituent elements are geometry unadorned and it owes its effects to the forthright, spare and local use of materials.’ His book was a success, bringing the canals back to public attention, and along with the formation of the Inland Waterways Association by Rolt and Robert Aickman in 1946, it helped create a new mood of admiration towards canals just as the government was contemplating closing them down for good. As you’d expect from a photographer, his timing was perfect.

The Rolle Aqueduct in Great Torrington. It was built in 1823 and was the main transport route used by the Marland North Devon Clay Company until 1871, when the canal closed. Eric de Mare, 1945-1980 (Historic England)

This celebration of the beauty and efficiency was repeated by De Maré in several more books, such as Bridges Of Britain and London’s Riverside. In 1956, he once more set out across the land to record the architecture that emerged as a vital by-product of the Victorian post-industrial landscape contributing images for JM Richard’s The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings, published by the Architectural Press in 1958. Again, De Mare saw beauty in the functional mills, docks, warehouse and breweries, and the defining concept of ‘architecture without architects’. This work was to prove an inspiration to architects such as Norman Foster and James Stirling. De Maré died in 2002 and by the time the Royal Institute of British Architects held an exhibition of his work in 2010, he was regarded as the most important architectural photographer of his generation, as well as one of the most important figures in the long renaissance of Britain’s inland waterways.