Out of the ordinary

PLAYING CARDS, DAISIES AND BRIGHT GREEN LEAVES: Nick Herrmann investigates unusual symbols and themes in narrowboat art.

Illustration by Jerry Hoare

Words by Nick Herrmann

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Bold lettering trumpeting along the towpath, diamonds rippling with colour, bouquets bobbing on the water: these motifs – emblazoned on canal boats across the country – belong to a unique type of folk art: ‘Roses & Castles’.

Although the artform is relatively recent, its exact origins are lost, prompting competing theories about the designs. Some believe these motifs are linked to Roma culture, though as boat painter Phil Speight recently expressed in The Guardian, the timings don’t work: “[W]hen this style of decoration was developing towards its height of excellence there weren’t any Romany vans in England,” he says. “They are just two completely separate cultures”.

Anne Young writes in Paint Roses & Castles that, as the decline in canal trade led to families moving onto boats in place of crew, they may have painted roses because they missed their gardens. Some think the decorations were a result of the Canal Boats Act of 1877. In competition with the railways, the canal industry was characterised by low wages and poor conditions and the act triggered visits from inspectors.

But in Narrow Boat Painting, A.J. Lewery points to articles from 1858 showing it was already an accepted practice. He suggests women bringing up families in such small spaces had to transform their surroundings out of necessity. Although we may never know its exact roots, a strong and significant tradition – with a unique lexicon of symbols and themes – remains.

Read on to discover the stories behind the most common, and less well-known, designs adorning narrowboats around the country.

Lettering & borders
Narrowboats are known for their characteristic lettering – a mix of grand Roman styles and leaf-like Tuscan typefaces popular in northern England that blend well with botanical imagery. According to Speight, “The Victorian ideal was for three different typefaces on the one boat panel.” A key element is the border: clean lines and calligraphic flourishes. This is in-keeping with Victorian signwriting and grew from regulations requiring identification on the sides of boats.

Traditional narrowboat painting comes with a distinctive palette of red, blue, yellow, green and black. In the past, the appearance of a boatperson’s home signified their status, which was essential in attracting a crew. At one time, certain colour combinations would have identified carriers. Some rules remain – orange and pastels are rarely used and light colours are set against dark to make the paintwork pop.

Castles may have represented the dream home, in contrast to the cabin housing a whole family. Young writes that castle scenes can reveal local details. A narrowboat on the Wey & Arun Canal included ears of wheat – common cargo in the area. Another theory paints them as romantic depictions of factories, towers representing chimneys.

Stylised roses might be linked to popular ‘japanned’ goods – imitations of Asian lacquerware, often depicting flowers and castles. The impressionistic style allows for maximum effect with minimum effort. “As time went on and money on the canals became harder to find,” says Speight, “the style became simpler”.

Daisies are a versatile motif in narrowboat art – sometimes prominent like the rose, sometimes providing peripheral decoration. Flowers seem to be less prominent in ‘Brightwork’, an artistic tradition that originated on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, which favours abstract scrollwork and a brighter palette.

Leaves are used to frame roses and fill space. Historically, their colour signified the boat’s origin – lighter leaves were popular in southern England, whereas emerald-green leaves with black shadows and white dots originated in northern dockyards.

Playing-card symbols
These could have been for identification or good luck. Hearts, spades and clubs are sometimes seen on the sliding hatch, while diamonds generally feature on the hull and cabin roofs. Lewery suggests diamonds could have evolved from nautical symbols, comparing them to geometrical patterns on Elizabethan ships, and chevron prinswerk used on Dutch fishing boats.

Posted on 23/12/2019