A look at Roses & Castles - the colourful canal folk art

A look at Roses & Castles - the colourful canal folk art


Posted 16th Feb 2018


Roses & Castles is a colourful canal folk art, originally used to decorate working narrowboats in the 19th century

It's a somewhat misleading title - both roses and castles feature in the designs, as do many flowers (some real, some imaginary), cottages, churches, rivers and lakes. In short, anything that could be part of a romantic landscape.

Roses & Castles would cover virtually everything in or on the narrowboat, including the vessel itself. The drinking can, the horse's harness, doors, fitted furniture, lamps, anything and everything would be decorated with bright and cheerful chocolate-box designs.

How did Roses & Castles come about?

Remarkably, the Roses & Castles movement took root and flourished at a time when there were other traditional crafts and trades that were starting to fade in the light of the industrial revolution. In fact, it would become so intrinsic to the boating environment that even now, it's still going strong.

No one is sure where the movement originated from. While there are obvious links with gypsy culture - their elaborately painted caravans - historians have also spotted similarities with folk art from Germany, Holland and even Asia.

While there is still uncertainty as to where it comes from, the reason for its popularity and growth is tied to the limited size of the boat cabin, the pride of the boat people and competition between canals and the railways.

Competition between the canals and the railways

Money proved to be short for the boatmen, when the railways started springing up. In these circumstances, it made sense for them to bring their wives and families on board to work the boat in place of any crew. At the same time, the advent of the railways limited any new investment in the canals, consequently meaning neither the canals nor the working narrowboats were able to benefit from further development. Cabins and living quarters of the boat were tiny and seemed set to stay that way.

The wives and other women folk of the boatmen brought domestic pride and accomplishment onto the boats with them. Their space was limited, making them even more determined to make every item bright and attractive.

There was also another reason behind this - there was a desire to appear as cultivated and refined as possible in front of Victorian land-dwellers who tended to look down their noses at the itinerant bargees with their dirty cargo and often illiterate children (they were always on the move, making school attendance difficult).

With brightly painted romantic landscapes adorning every available surface, crocheted lace hanging in the cabin, and everything scrubbed and polished, the boat men and women displayed their pride in their trade, creating solidarity with their fellow boaters.

Text, image and information courtesy of the Canal & River Trust





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