I’m currently re-reading Phil Smiths’ ‘Mythogeography’ as a prelude to reading his new book ‘On Walking… and Stalking Sebald’. And he’s got me thinking about re-imagining the familiar. For a couple of years now I’ve been doing irregular posts, variously called Man v. Can or Painted Ware which share my learning about painted canal ware and in particular the boatman’s Water Can.

What became apparent early on was that my interest favoured the amateur painters, particularly the ‘boatman painters’, and even the modern ‘leisure enthusiasts’ efforts rather than the sometimes slick graphicacy of the professional painter.

Simplicity attracted me, particularly where designs were reduced to basic elements and abstracted almost to the point of no longer being recognisable representations of flowers, leaves or buildings. It seemed to me in these gaudy amateur efforts something fundamental was being achieved, something vibrant and important, an informal language in paint was being developed, a result of personal passion, creativity, austerity (perhaps) and determination.

Decorative painting, in narrow boat back cabins and on canal ware, was rooted in the commercial arts of the Victorian era, in mass-produced crockery decoration; in greetings cards and ‘fine art’ postcards; in the numerous paintings on glass and decorated long clocks, or japanned or painted floral furniture etc. etc. it all influenced the boatman and informed his tastes and style.

Phil Smith encourages on pg.  116 of ‘Mythogeography’ that in seeking to re-imagine and re-interpret the familiar I should try not to: ‘discriminate between respectable and non-respectable types of knowledge’ but instead insist ‘on the presence of popular, trash, pulp layers, and the foregrounding of […] autobiographical and non-rational associations…’ so, in working to better understand the motivation underlying the work of the boatman painters I’ve begun to ask questions.

Why, as an art form, did canal ware painting not evolve beyond it’s original  narrow frame of reference?

Why are the same images replicated again and again with varying degrees of skill or conviction?

I began to re-imagine the Water Can. What would happen, for example, if I didn’t try to emulate what had been done before, but took as a starting point my own roots and visual culture?

What would happen if I reinterpreted the traditional ingredients of canal ware painting – the castles, flowers and the flourishes – through the filter of say Pop Art or music, typography or cartography, cartoons or graphic novels, children’s book illustration or line drawings etc. The creative possibilities of the idea excited me.

However, given that I’m still working to complete my first ‘traditional’ Water Can, I thought I’d leave that piece sitting on the shelf in ‘The Shed’ and instead I’d explore my ideas on a few 18″ square canvases I had lying around.

The paintings below aren’t meant to be anything other than rough sketches and I know they won’t find favour with the purists, but the activity of painting more freely is helping to get me ‘under the skin’ of canalware painting. It’s freeing me up, and rather than panic about creating a rather stilted and slavish copy of someone else’s style I’m – perhaps – gradually working towards something I can call my own – a Journey Can perhaps?

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