As rivalry from the railways eroded the profitability of commercial carrying on the inland waterways boat men working long-distance routes were forced to move their families from the land onto the boats.
These early family boats prompted the move from scumbling (a painted technique mimicking wood grain) and more basic identifying or functional symbols and motifs to something more decorative.
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.
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.
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.
The compression artefacts into basic elements painted on any available flat surface or utilitarian object, was a humane response to adversity, and the function of painting evolve both as memorial, as a reminder of things left behind; but also as evidence of a desire for continuity, a refusal to let go of everything that they’d left behind.
As a result of time constraints in busy yards (where laid-up boatmen earned little or nothing); or due to the varying degrees of skill, artistry and creativity of the boat painters; or the innate conservation of the boat families; or austerity limiting the colours and quality of paints available – the motifs were abstracted almost to the point of no longer being recognisable representations of flowers, leaves or buildings; and evolved into an outwardly simple, yet in reality hugely eloquent, shorthand language in paint.