Why Roses & Castles?

The painted decoration, both inside and outside Eileen, has fired up my interest in narrowboat brightwork in all its various forms.

In her original form, as a basic cabin day boat, Eileen wouldn’t have had the elaborate painted decoration lavished on many of the longer-haul live aboard cabin boats, nor indeed would she have had the decoration that’s found on her today.

(My excuse for keeping the current interior painted decoration is simply that I love it! And, as we’re not undertaking a full restoration, I enjoy the fact that she has an evolving story with a rich history that all needs respecting and acknowledging, even where it’s a little historically inaccurate…)

She would nonetheless have had what might be called functional design rather than decoration, with the lettering, colours and shapes combining to enable easy and accurate identification of her by boatmen who, in the main, would not have been literate and could be faced with finding an individual boat amongst countless similar boats.

I described this type of (mainly external) painted brightwork in a previous post (click HERE).

In this post I’m starting to look, in a little more detail, at the kind of interior painted decoration created by and for boat families as increasing numbers of boatmen, mainly  through economic circumstance brought on by competition from the railways, were forced to bring their families to live aboard.

These early family boats saw a transition from scumbling and more basic identifying or functional symbols and motifs to something more decorative. It’s relatively easy (once you get away from romanticised notions of links to Romany caravans etc. suggested in early reference materials on the origins of narrowboat painting) to see the impetus for the transition.

When moving into the tiny living cabin it would have been natural for the boatman’s family to bring with them the bric-a-brac they had accumulated over the years on the land, however, as there was so little room on board, it is also possible to understand the hugely practical response to adversity that saw many of these objects – over time – replaced, to be substituted by paintings on the side of the cabin that took up none of the precious available space and were easy to maintain and clean.

During the early to mid 19th century many popular household items and furniture would have had a highly decorated finish, often featuring flowers and romantic landscapes. These were often simplified and stylised version of 17th and 18th romantic paintings and contained many of the elements that would, in time, come to characterise narrow boat painting. They included the castle or ruin, the lake, the wooded mountainous landscape etc. Popular versions of these romantic landscapes were to be found everywhere, from the dials of long case or grandfather clocks, to japanned and papier mache tea trays, from glass paintings to bone china plates and cups, to Christmas cards.

The new form of painted decoration (rather than the previous practical design) found mainly in the living cabin interior, was a response to the popular styles of the time, and might be broadly described as a  flowers & landscapes (often river scenes) style. It was a style that evolved, within the closed and conservative community of boaters, through the mid to late 19th century as a very human response to the harsh realities that the new boat families experienced in the cramped living cabin.

To be continued…

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