With their colourful patterns of roses and castles, brightly painted domestic utensils once used on barges are now highly popular collectables.
Folk art has always flourished in Britain and never more so than on the canals in the late 19th century. The barges and narrow boats that plied their trade up and down the network of inland waterways that covered the country were more than just cargo vessels; they were the homes of the bargees and their families. To liven up the overall appearance of the narrow boat, it became common to paint interior woodwork and everyday domestic objects made in wood and metal in bright and colourful patterns, some
of which soon became traditional designs.
The two best-known patterns are roses and castles. It is not known why roses should be the chosen flower of the bargee but, during the late 19th century, there was a fashion within the ceramics industry for using roses for decoration on washstands, candlesticks and other objects and it seems natural that the painters of canal ware should want to copy the latest trend or fashion.
The roses were painted almost to a formula and were somewhat naive in form. First, the leaves were put on to form the background. They were veined and shadowed with dark brown or black for realism, and 'dashed' with short lines of yellow or orange to give a feeling of movement to the composition. Next, flat discs of solid colour were put in as the basis for the roses. The petals would then be painted in quickly by a single curving stroke of the brush, which enabled the petals to be of varying width. The speed and simplicity of this brushstroke gave the flowers the life and vigour that is typical of canal ware.
Castle scenes also seem to have had a set pattern. The castles were usually painted on a white background, with blue skies and white clouds. The castle was set on a slight hill or rise and there was often a range of hills in the background, a stretch of water or lake, spanned by a bridge, in front of the castle and some trees near the buildings. The castles were very stylized, often Mediterranean in appearance, with square or
cylindrical crenulated towers, and red pantiled roofs on the buildings. Some resembled French chateaux with their narrow, fairy-like towers. The whole scene would be set within a scrolled frame-like border when used on a cabin door, for example, or it would be surrounded by a garland of roses and daisies on furniture or utensils.
Domestic articles, such as Buckby cans, jugs, bowls, buckets and pails were mainly decorated with floral patterns. Wooden stools, boxes, trunks and door panels were often painted with both castle and rose designs.
CANAL WARE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Canal ware was made continuously from the late 19th century until well into the second half of the 20th century. And, despite the act that there are now few working
barges on British canals, reproduction canal ware is still being made for the
souvenir and tourist trade. This says much about its charm and enduring appeal
but complicates the business of dating pieces.
Fine 19th-century and early 20thcentury articles will rarely be found except in
folk or specialist museums. Some occasionally turn up at antiques fairs and
auctions but if they are genuinely old and in relatively good condition they will command fairly high prices,
since canal ware is now very collectable. panels or small pieces of furniture such
as stools or tables which are decorated with castle scenes are particularly sought after by contrast with the more
common place roses or floral patterns. Items with unusual designs - some have fine portraits of dogs on
them - are even more desirable.
Most of the pieces you will find in antiques fairs and junk shops will probably date from the
1950s or 60s. Prices depend on the nature of the object, the type and complexity of its
pattern and on its condition. Many Buckby cans, for example, have bases and spouts in bright
barber pole colours with the roses pattern on the body of the can divided horizontally by a band of daisies. These will be more valuable than ones of simpler design.
As one Buckby could easily be mistaken for another when taken along to a communal tap for filling, the bargee often had his name painted on the side. Gothic, Roman or Arabic lettering was used, and this could sometimes be 'shadowed' to give a three-dimensional effect. Mottoes such as 'Trust to Me' were also favoured. Name and motto canal ware is sought after but be wary; many recent reproduction items have these features.
You're unlikely to find pieces of any age in pristine condition. Most cans,
buckets and jugs were workaday household objects, so a few dents and even slightly faded
paintwork do not matter too much. Beware, however, of any item where the pattern is seriously damaged or missing.
It's usually quite easy to spot a reproduction as the painting is very bright. Since it is difficult to imitate the original artist's work, canal ware is never restored, and genuine items therefore show signs of wear and tear.