I've just been re-reading Flowers Afloat
, by Tony Lewery - a natural follow-up to our recent canal holiday.
The working canal people often lived on their boats - an entire family in a cabin smaller than my bathroom (6ft X 10 ft was the standard cabin size). The limited space was used as effectively as possible: beds turned into seats during the day or removed altogether; tables folded up to become cupboard doors, no toilet, washing facilities were a tin bowl that hung on the wall when not in use.
One result of this limited space was an explosion of decorative paintwork. The back of the table would be painted so that the picture was visible when the table was folder up. Seat boards, stools, water can, the back of the tin bowl, all would be decorated and probably more besides. On the outside of the boat, the tiller and rope blocks would be painted either with geometric patterns or with flowers. The boat's name would be painted in ornate letters and there would often be a painted picture beside the owner's name on the cabin side.
The vast majority of this art work would be either roses or castles. (Hence the popularity of 'Rose and Castle' as a pub name near old canals - I found half a dozen on Google with no effort at all and there would probably be more if I looked harder.)
Other subjects were used, the sailor from the Players' cigarette adverts appears now and then, but roses and castles probably account for 90% of canal art.
The cabin doors (viewed from the inside) typically had a castle as the top image and a swag of roses in the panel underneath.
Here, you can see the external appearance of the stern of a motor-powered narrowboat - note the decorated water can which was kept on the roof and refilled with drinking water at suitable stops.
Below, you can see a pair of restored working boats. Narrowboats were often worked in pairs, the second boat or 'butty' being towed by the first one and having no engine itself. The butty had a cabin, often even smaller than the one on the main boat and it was useful extra living space for some of the larger families.
The earliest narrowboats were horsedrawn, and some horsedrawn boats were still in use during the second world war, but they died out after that.
Note the ogee curve painted on the front of the butty. That was another popular motif, often on the outside of doorways, rather like an entrance arch. (See if you can spot one behind the open door on the picture above this one)
The restoration of these boats is not yet complete. The name on the bow should be painted clearly, often with a diamond pattern next to the name. You can see the white undercoat already in place for the work to be done.
The size of narrowboats was determined by the locks on the British canal network. At 70ft long and 7ft wide, the locks defined the boats that would fit into them.
One of the most striking things about traditional canal art is how little it varied. Many boatyards and many boatsmen painted, but all the results look remarkably similar. While it is possible to see stylistic variations between different boatyards and sometimes between individual artists, you can look instantly at a picture and say 'That's a canal rose/castle'.
Working narrowboats were a relatively short culture, lasting only 200 years, but they provide one of the few extant forms of folk art in Britain. (There was also a narrowboat tradition of decorative crochet work, which I may talk about some other time)