As a break from the my ongoing struggles with painting up a 3 gallon Water Can, I tend to look for inspiration from books such as Tony Lewery’s Flowers Afloat or the internet.
As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to be drawn not to the professional yard-based semi-professional or professional dock painters who decorated the boats as part of their job, but those boatmen who picked up a brush and did it themselves.
To my eye what the boatman-painter’s efforts so often show is a degree of personal involvement and an investment of time that’s simply not possible in a professional painter working to tight timescales and established budgets.
In the closed community of boating families, the importance of the paintery tradition, it’s profusion of flowers and pictures, was just one of what Tony Lewery calls ‘the layers of tradition’ that marked the community out as unique.
On page 104 of Flowers Afloat Tony Lewery has an interesting hypothesis to help explain the rise of the boatman-painter in the 20th Century, one which extends beyond the economic reality of a professional paint job being expensive:
Possibly the biggest boost to the emergence of the boatman-painter as an important part of the history of boat painting came from those who most wishes to end it. The Grand Union Canal Company was formed in 1926 […] the colour scheme was an austere two tones of blue with white lines between them, and hearts, scalloped edges and ogee arches on the cabin backs were replaced with rectangular simplifications. Roses and castles were not to be seen. It was after all the 1930s, an age of streamlining and simplicity, still reacting and recovering from the frills and excesses of Victorian and Edwardian taste, and it would not be surprising if the new management saw the old-fashioned paintings and colours as symptomatic of the inefficient attitudes that they had to overcome if they were to compete with aeroplanes and the motor lorry. […]
Imposing corporate aspirations on a hugely conservative community would surely have prompted a reaction. With a quiet, yet steadfast determination to preserve the traditions that defined their community it was inevitable that boatmen would fill the cultural vacuum created by GUCCC, if the Company wouldn’t do it they would do it themselves.
The boatmen-painters looked no further than their own community and the boats and painters that were around them for inspiration and, at a time of the International Movement in art and society and the sweep of pre-war Modernity, the boatmen-painter developed his skills through reproducing their own versions of professional painters work, and gaining in confidence slowly evolving their own personal take on a style.
What is often apparent in the work of the boatman-painter is a difference of attitude. It may be more clumsily done [than a professional painter], but there is a calm confidence that the art belongs to him and to his extended family working on the boats. There is less of a hurry to get the job finished (and paid for) and more care was taken to satisfy the demands of his well-informed customers who were, before the pleasure boat business took over, judging what was right or acceptable in the boating world on the basis of a lifetime’s experience, or on that of their parents and grandparents. From page 106 Flowers Afloat
Reg Barnett was one of the very best boatman painters who was hugely influenced, at first hand, by master painter Bill Hodgson`s work. However, like the vast majority of painters, though he could not produce the sponteneity of the original and necessarily learned to systemise the painting into a number of replicable stages the outcome, grounded in the boating community has an appealing integrity and assurance, it just looks right!
Bill Hodgson was a very prolific professional dock painter working largely for the Anderton Company and others local to the Potteries. His early ambition was to be an artist and tried to get his landscape painting accepted by the Royal Academy. He failed in this and subsequently contented himself with boat decoration as a career. His canal landscapes are dark, broody and his style was so unique, painterly even that it’s arguable that he was the one and only knobstick painter – and, as boatman-painters found – very difficult to copy. (For a fine essay on Bill Hodgson I’d encourage anyone to purchase Flowers Afloat and read the chapter ‘Middlewich and Stoke-on-Trent’.
I first saw the following series of images of the ex Anderton Company / Henry Seddon’s narrow boat Sweden’s back cabin on a CanalWorld thread, but I can’t for the life of me re-find the link again to credit the photographer. It’s the work of Bill Hodgson. Gorgeous.