Heritage Crafts

Canal art and boat painting

See also fairground art, vardo crafts.
Craft category
Historic area of significance
Canal boaters, bargemen, watermen and waterway traders.
Area practiced currently
Canal boaters and other people associated with inland waterways (they may have been taught by boat painters or be enthusiasts and boat preservationists). Travellers living roadside may also practice painting and trading bargeware items.
Origin in the UK
19th Century; possibly earlier undocumented forms.
Current No. of professionals (Main income)
11-21 (16 identified in the GRTSB Makers survey) Based on consultation, these are craftspeople who can do new work in recognised traditional styles, restore heritage objects in historic styles, and are working to a professional standard. These craftspeople also have experience with working and historic boats and historic and hold the skills to work on a variety of boats and associated items.
Current No. of trainees
Not currently known
Current No. of leisure makers
20+ This figure would include artists and craftspeople who enjoy canal art as a personal practice and hobby for their own enjoyment.


Canal arts and boat painting, as we identify them today, grew with the historic waterway trading and coal delivery networks during the 19th century industrial revolution. Canal infrastructure hubs included Birmingham and Dudley in the Black Country, along the route of the Grand Union Canal, which connected London waterways to the Midlands and the North. The Old Main Line Birmingham and Wolverhampton Canal (known regionally as ‘the cut’), connects with the Shropshire Union Canal, joining up with waterways into Wales and up to Liverpool and Manchester. Boaters and bargemen worked in the same way as today’s long distance lorry driver, with set routes, regular employment and steady wages. However, their isolating profession led to the people of the canals forming their own communities in the same way of the miners. This developed and solidified into a recognisable class of people as the social and economic status of the canals changed towards the later Victorian period.

The art of canal boat painting began with a need for the boat owners to advertise their services and have their vessels identifiable by authorities. The colours and styles were dictated by both the financial status of the boat owner and the fashions of the time. The decoration of  cabin interior and ‘running gear’ were driven more by the aesthetic tastes of the boaters themselves, and are believed to be a slightly later development, but regularly in use by the 1830s.

Folk art historian and canal painter Tony Lewery describes the practice of canal art as ‘the result of a balanced relationship between the artists who did, the group it was done for and the underlying reasons for its existence’ (Lewery 1996, p7); the painters often being boatbuilders who did the work as part of their trade and the boatmen themselves, and the group being the population of canal boaters.

Lewery goes on to explain that the reasons behind the art itself are complex and difficult to encapsulate:

‘An outward display of domestic neatness was important, and advertising in a general sense, proclaiming one’s taste and prosperity within the boating society; but perhaps above all it was a statement of self-esteem, and a mark of membership of an exclusive trade elite’. (Lewery, 1996 p7)

Canal art shares many common themes with fairground arts and vardo painting, such as scroll work and floral motifs, as well as popular symbols and flourishes found within Victorian arts and crafts. The stylistic influences between traveller communities, those who built and painted waggons and the people who painted on the canals are evident, as are the influences of the fashions of the day. However, each of the communities retained their own distinct communities and cultural practices.

Canal art is famous for the ‘Roses & Castles’ imagery, plus bold patterns such as harlequin diamonds, hearts, crescent moons and brightly coloured sun-circle. These are expertly placed to enhance the cabin, hull, and the many objects found on working and living boats.

Lewery writes that part of the enduring appeal of the distinctive ‘Roses & Castles’ motifs are their mysterious origins:

‘Nobody really knows where it came from…It may be a leftover Victorian commercial art nurtured by the anachronistic culture of the canals to survive as an exotic species in the modern world, but it could equally possibly be a foreign implant. There are vaguely similar styles of folk art in Scandinavia and Germany, and surprisingly similar styles in Turkey and Bangladesh. In the eighteenth century the apparently related Hinderloopen paintwork of the Dutch was only a sailing barge journey away from the Thames, whilst many people recognise a connection with the Gypsies’ culture and their elaborate caravans. It is still a mystery. Whatever the origins this most delightful of British folk arts is surviving quite well, and still giving pleasure.’

Lewery, https://www.canaljunction.com/heritage/art/roses_castles.htm

Canal art was significantly more flamboyant prior to the first world war when many painters were lost and the canals themselves started to decline.

Canal artists of note who are no longer practising today include: Ron Hough, Frank Nurser, George Crowshaw, Percy Frost, George Baxter, Bill Hodgson and Alf Fennimore.


Cultural Significance 

Although historically boaters and bargemen were separate from the Roma and Gyspy communities, in 2023, the collective term GRTSB is used to describe the communities of Gypsy, Roma, Traveller, Showmen and Boaters, as those with distinct ethnic heritages and cultural traditions, as seen in the arts and crafts associated with their cultures. Regardless of the extent to which these communities actually interacted throughout history, they were all marginalised from mainstream society and many today find collaborating beneficial.

Based on consultation for this edition of The Red List (2023), there are approximately 11-21 (16 identified in the survey) craftspeople who can make new work in recognised traditional styles, restore bargeware objects in historic styles, and are working to a professional standard. These craftspeople also have experience with working and historic boats and hold the skills to work on a variety of boats and associated items. The heritage canal art styles today are also painted by other artists and enthusiasts. There is an informal teaching structure and short course model that has been sharing the authentic canal art style for around the past 20 years (via Phil Speight, Julie Tonkin and others), and the well-known practical books by AJ Lewery.

An important cross-community use of traditionally recognised canal art techniques can be found in horse-drawn Traveller communities of the post-war period, up until today. Traveller craftswoman Ella Mae Sueref learnt canal art techniques for bargeware and horseshoe painting whilst living horse-drawn, and was inspired by the Traveller people in her convoy and extended family to take up the craft.  This cultural cross-over correlates with the loss of horse-drawn narrowboats and barges in the UK (c. 1950-1960), and the trading of former tow-horses into the roadside travelling communities of the era, along with their items of harness, tack and kit, and bargeware items like watercans and enamelled kettles. This shows another fascinating correlation with industrialisation and post-war economies, and the re-positioning of Traveller crafts intra-culturally.

Canal arts form a part of the intangible cultural heritage (ICH) of boater communities, folk and outsider arts, and, combined with the new Red List entries for vardo crafts and fairground arts, link three distinct travelling communities in the UK over almost 200 years, between the Victorian industrial revolution and today.


  • Hand-painted objects attached to the running of a working boat, such as water cans, dippers, handbowls, mops etc
  • Hand-painted boat hulls
  • Hand-painted signwriting
  • Blending, swirls, scrolls, borders
  • Lettering that is responsive to the space
  • Creating floral and pictorial scenes (Roses & Castles)
  • Boat-name signage and insignia
  • Horse kit such as decorative wooden harness beads, painted nose-bowls and horseshoes
  • Graining or “scumbling” cabin interiors and external decoration


Allied crafts:

  • Signwrighting
  • Coach painting
  • Graining
  • Vardo and Living Waggon crafts
  • Cabin lace
  • Rope and fender making

Issues affecting the viability

  • Awareness of the craft: As people become interested in the ‘tiny home’ eco-focus and alternative methods of living off-grid, narrowboats are becoming popular for people seeking affordable accommodation, either in an inner-city mooring (as with many London boaters) or as working spaces and arts studios, as with contemporary sculptor Kate MccGwire. There may not be the historical awareness or context for Boaters as a historic cultural group of Travellers – with a distinct style of art that has connections to the past – beyond the 200-year documented history of boat painting in the UK.
  • Lack of skilled practitioners: There is a distinction between the professional craftspeople who can competently paint a whole historic boat and associated fittings to a standard that ensures traditional knowledge, skills and styles are represented, and the artists and craftspeople who enjoy canal art as a personal practice and hobby for their own enjoyment. The GRTSB Crafts Makers Survey will remain open until July 2023 to allow for further conversations, research and updates into the future, and this approach is actively building relationships and support for GRTSB self-representation.
  • Lack of training opportunities: Informal training in the form of apprenticeship and mentorship is occasionally offered. Short courses in canal art and sign writing are helping to reach a next generation of craftspeople with transferable skills and interests in the visual styles associated with canal arts.
  • Loss of skills: Due to the waterways becoming mainly living and leisure spaces, the industrial association with the heritage economy and travelling-trading forms (coal for example), mean that historic working boats requiring re-painting c.1900 are rare, and are often museum pieces or in need of extensive repair. As the older boats fall out of use, the restoration and decorative skills are not seen or shared, as they were in the past. This means the focus shifts from painting historic boats, to painting items of bargeware, which have transferable settings and uses.
  • Emulation of canal art: Many people have taken courses in canal arts in the past 20 years, and this forms a different skill set and standard to those required by professional canal artists to paint and restore a historic boat, for example.
  • Availability of materials and conservation: Old boats are becoming more-rare, and opportunities to paint early models c.1900 are now very limited. There is great concern from the Boater crafts community as to the current conservation practices of museums holding heritage canal art objects and historic boats, and this concern is for the correct and urgent repair and storage of significant items of Boater heritage crafts, which are at risk of actively being lost due to neglect. Paints used in canal arts historically contained toxic lead and therefore there might be issues sourcing older paints for restoration, and associated health implications of working with old paints.

Support organisations

  • Waterways Craft Guild
  • Norbury Wharf
  • Black Country Living Museum
  • Canal & River Trust
  • Delph Locks & Stables
  • Heatherfield Heritage

Training organisations

There are no formal training opportunities or apprenticeship available in canal art and boat painting.

Short courses:

  • Kerri Williams (apprentice to Julie Tonkin) runs short courses in canal arts: https://www.theheritagecrafter.co.uk/courses
  • Phil Speight, the renowned sign writer and painter runs courses showing the traditional art of painting Roses and Castles
  • Terence Edgar, master decorative painter in the traditional Roses & Castles style

Craftspeople currently known

A list of canal artists, who practice bargeware object painting and canal crafts (including cabin lace and rope work): https://www.canaljunction.com/canal/crafts.htm

Boat painters and signwriters:

  • Darren Williams: speciality high quality hand-painted signwriting and artworks.
  • Norbury Wharf Ltd: professional boat and narrowboat painting, signwriting, traditional canal arts.

Other information

Consultants for this entry onto The Red List:

  • Kerri Williams, Ella Mae Sueref, Phil Speight and Kerry Dainty; many thanks for your generous time and willingness to speak on your crafts.

Thanks to all the participants of The GRTSB Crafts Makers Survey.


  • Narrow Boat Painting, A.J. Lewery (1974)
  • The Art of the Narrow Boat Painters, A.J. Lewery (2005)
  • Flowers Afloat, J. Lewery (1996)
  • Canal Arts and Crafts, Avril Lansdell (2004)
  • A Canal People: The Photographs of Robert Longden, S Rolt (1997)
  • Roses & Castles; A Practical Introduction to Narrow Boat Decoration, Jane Marshall (2017)
  • Inland Waterways Association, https://waterways.org.uk/
  • Canal & River Trust, https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/about-us
  • ‘Roses & Castles’ article, https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-history/history-features-and-articles/roses-and-castles-canal-folk-art
  • Roving Canal Traders Association, https://www.rcta.org.uk
  • Canal Junction resource, https://www.canaljunction.com
  • Tony Lewery, https://www.canaljunction.com/narrowboat/art.htm
  • Tony Lewery, https://www.canaljunction.com/narrowboat/signwriting.htm
  • Narrowboat Skills Centre, https://nbsc.org.uk
  • Delph Locks, https://industrialtour.co.uk/delph-locks/
  • Black Country Living Museum, https://bclm.com
  • Mike Clarke, canal historian, http://www.mikeclarke.myzen.co.uk/
  • The GRTSB Crafts Makers Survey, conducted by Imogen Bright Moon (2023), bit.ly/grtcraft
National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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