Art of the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2010
Roger Wickson takes a closer look at the painting of Jim and Isaiah Atkins
In the Winter 2009 edition of NarrowBoat there are two good photographs of Thomas Clayton ‘gas boats’ in Osney Lock on the Thames. It is quite clear from the photographs that the butty Rea had been recently painted at Polesworth. It is not clear whether the motor boat, which is probably the Tweed, had been. This caused me to think more about Polesworth painting, which is some of the most fascinating and attractive that was ever to be found on narrowboats. Yet, as Tony Lewery pointed out in his article in the very first edition of NarrowBoat (Spring 2006), in recent years it has not received anything like the degree of public awareness, even among narrowboat enthusiasts, accorded to Braunston painting or Bill Hodgson’s ‘knobstick’ painting. To be fair, NarrowBoat has not neglected it; in addition to Tony Lewery’s article, Brian Collings gave it a positive mention in the Spring 2007 edition. The following edition contained a fine article by Harry Arnold devoted to the boathouse at Snarestone and Isaiah Atkins. Moreover, and perhaps surprisingly in view of the fact that Barlows had their own docks, Christopher M. Jones in one of his outstanding creations, for the Autumn 2006 cover of NarrowBoat, shows the Samuel Barlow boat George clearly decorated with Polesworth roses and castles. Chris confirms that both Samuel Barlow Ltd and S.E. Barlow used Polesworth dock as well as their own yards and Nurser’s at Braunston. So fascinating is this particular style of painting I felt it merited further attention. I shall make no attempt to tell the history of the Polesworth yard, as Tony Lewery has covered it adequately in his books Narrowboat Painting and Flowers Afloat. Instead I would like to draw readers’ attention to particular features of the work of Jim and Isaiah Atkins and in doing so I hope to invite comments and even explanations of some of the puzzles that I find in their painting. Examples of their work can be seen in the museums at Gloucester and Ellesmere Port, and Mary Gibby’s lovingly restored Swan is a floating museum of Polesworth painting. There are also some pieces in private collections.
In the Winter 2009 edition of NarrowBoat there are two good photographs of Thomas Clayton ‘gas boats’ in Osney Lock on the Thames. It is quite clear from the photographs that the butty Rea had been recently painted at Polesworth. It is not clear whether the motor boat, which is probably the Tweed, had been. This caused me to think more about Polesworth painting, which is some of the most fascinating and attractive that was ever to be found on narrowboats. Yet, as Tony Lewery pointed out in his article in the very first edition of NarrowBoat (Spring 2006), in recent years it has not received anything like the degree of public awareness, even among narrowboat enthusiasts, accorded to Braunston painting or Bill Hodgson’s ‘knobstick’ painting.
To be fair, NarrowBoat has not neglected it; in addition to Tony Lewery’s article, Brian Collings gave it a positive mention in the Spring 2007 edition. The following edition contained a fine article by Harry Arnold devoted to the boathouse at Snarestone and Isaiah Atkins. Moreover, and perhaps surprisingly in view of the fact that Barlows had their own docks, Christopher M. Jones in one of his outstanding creations, for the Autumn 2006 cover of NarrowBoat, shows the Samuel Barlow boat George clearly decorated with Polesworth roses and castles. Chris confirms that both Samuel Barlow Ltd and S.E. Barlow used Polesworth dock as well as their own yards and Nurser’s at Braunston.
So fascinating is this particular style of painting I felt it merited further attention. I shall make no attempt to tell the history of the Polesworth yard, as Tony Lewery has covered it adequately in his books Narrowboat Painting and Flowers Afloat. Instead I would like to draw readers’ attention to particular features of the work of Jim and Isaiah Atkins and in doing so I hope to invite comments and even explanations of some of the puzzles that I find in their painting. Examples of their work can be seen in the museums at Gloucester and Ellesmere Port, and Mary Gibby’s lovingly restored Swan is a floating museum of Polesworth painting. There are also some pieces in private collections.
Thomas Clayton’s Umea at Banbury, possibly fresh from the dock at Polesworth, showing the Atkins’ magnificent paintwork.The Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port
A number of canal books have photographs of Polesworth painting which are well worth study. Tony Lewery has included several in his books.
Thomas Clayton’s boats were sometimes docked at Polesworth, so there are several examples of boats painted there in Alan Faulkner’s Claytons of Oldbury. The best shows Rea and Umea at Banbury in 1955. While the paintwork on Rea was beginning to look worn, Umea certainly looks as if it has just been repainted with distinctive lettering on the cabin sides, a profusion of flowers and very characteristic cabin doors. It may well be that it was fresh from the dock, having replaced the Tweed as Rea’s motor.
Some of the most outstanding photographs of Polesworth work are to be found in Eric de Maré’s The Canals of England. There is a magnificent portrait of the distinguished Oxford Canal ‘Number One’ (owner-boatman) John Wilson and his wife standing in front of their boat Mabel on the slipway at Polesworth. The flamboyant Egyptian lettering is clearly to be seen, as is the swag of flowers.
Rare among motor boats, Mabel had a castle painted on each of its cabin sides. Mabel passed to Michael Rogers, an erstwhile architect, who initially used it for coal carrying. It can be seen in Sonia Rolt’s A Canal People lavishly decorated in the Polesworth style at its most gorgeous.
Mabel was subsequently converted by Michael Rogers as a hotel boat and I remember seeing it in 1961 above Nell Bridge Lock on the Oxford Canal. Sadly, in a way, Michael repainted the boat in his own style, and I think he was perhaps the first to introduce the regrettable practice of painting the space between the chimney rims red. He was actually a very good painter and Mabel looked very smart in his hands but his work could not match that of the Atkins brothers. Fortunately all is not lost and Mabel’s table cupboard flap, resplendent in Polesworth painting, survives at Ellesmere Port.
Eric de Maré’s portrait of Mr & Mrs John Wilson against the backdrop of the Polesworth-painted Mabel, and also a detail of the lettering and roses.
Mabel’s table cupboard flap, resplendent in Polesworth painting, and now on display at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port.
Narrowboat painting was essentially an ephemeral art and painters did not expect their work to last, often painting over their previous work or that of other painters. I was therefore very interested to see, in a recent newsletter of the Historic Narrowboat Owners Club, photographs of the butty boat Altair in British Waterways livery taken on separate occasions with different BW motors and sporting Polesworth painting on the cabin doors. Altair was a wooden boat built at Rickmansworth for the GUCCC so I contacted Richard Booth, archivist of HNBOC, to discover whether he knew how it had come to be painted at Polesworth. Did BW perhaps sometimes use the Polesworth yard to dock their wooden boats I wondered?
Richard acknowledged that this was possible, but pointed out that Altair did not pass directly to BW. In 1946 it was sold to Garside’s of Leighton Buzzard, who might have had it docked and painted at Polesworth, before it went to BW in 1954. Certainly there is no evidence of anyone at Bulls Bridge painting in the Polesworth style and it is likely that the painting on the cabin sides was changed while the internal painting was left untouched. The photographs of Altair were taken in the late 1950s and the paintwork on the cabin doors looks in very good shape. So the question remains for whom was Altair painted at Polesworth and why? Perhaps readers can offer an answer.
The Lure of the Swan
I first became passionate about narrowboats when I was a small boy in the 1940s and my grandmother ran the Three Pigeons public house on the Oxford Canal. Most of the boats that I saw were beautifully painted and some were certainly painted at Polesworth, but although, at the age of ten, I gave an illustrated talk on narrowboats and boat painting to my primary school class, I was not then old enough to distinguish between styles. I first became aware of Polesworth painting in 1962 when its beauty lured me into buying Swan from Gordon Waddington. Originally a Cowburn & Cowpar boat and painted at Polesworth, Gordon continued to use the Atkins brothers to paint some of his boats. Unfortunately its appearance belied its true condition and I soon passed it on. For many years it has been owned and lovingly cared for by Mary Gibby. Happily the original painting in the cabin has been preserved.
Landscapes with Castles
Polesworth landscapes are very distinctive and raise some interesting questions. Most of the usual features are to be found in them: buildings loosely called castles, mountains, fields, trees, water, bridges, and sometimes – very rarely – boats.
The towers are notable for their distinctive roofs and their windows made up of single brush strokes, broader at the top and finer at the base in clusters of about six. Sometimes they are painted with vertical zig-zags. The towers are supported by a mixture of buildings, some three dimensional, others flat. The windows and doors of these often have a Moorish element. The roofs of towers have been likened to saucepan lids.
These, and the roofs of other buildings, are usually painted red, but sometimes blue. Red roofs are shaded with burnt umber and yellow, blue roofs with burnt umber and white. The front walls of the three dimensional buildings are often painted white with blue doors.
Among these buildings is sometimes found a very English looking church. The buildings and their windows are painted in umbers, siennas, ochres and creams, all of which are subtly blended. Rich but subtle blending is a very strong feature of Polesworth work.
The buildings usually stand on a grassy plateau above a lake or pond, its strong blue at the bottom of the picture gradually fading to near white, reflecting the blue of the sky in which a touch of red and yellow can usually be found. The pond or lake is usually flecked with touches of white to represent waves and surrounded by reeds of various colours. Trees and bushes frame the buildings.
Examples of these features can be found in the painting on Swan’s engine room door which includes a church. The aging of the varnish has given it a subdued tone but all the features and colours are there. Further examples can be found on the flap of Swan’s table cupboard and the top panel of the weather board. There is another excellent example on a modesty flap now at Ellesmere Port. I do not know which boat it came from, Mabel possibly.
These pictures look so very different from the castles painted at other boatyards that I have long wondered what inspired them, particularly as they have a definite Italianate feel about them. A thought came to me when I was in an Italian restaurant in Congleton. On the wall was a mural of Venice. It had many of the features of a Polesworth castle scene. The roofs, doors and windows were very similar and the tops of the striped poles to which the gondolas were moored were just like the roofs of Polesworth towers. I wonder whether the painter who created Polesworth castles had seen a reproduction of a painting by Canaletto and incorporated some of its features. There is little doubt that painters did copy pictures. One of Herbert Tooley’s castles is certainly closely based on a French castle that was shown in a postcard that I once owned. I would welcome comments.
Who Painted What?
Altair in British Waterways livery but still sporting Polesworth painting on the cabin doors. She is seen (above) looking rather weather beaten with Ling and (below) looking much smarter with Dorado.Rosie Smith Collection
The Swan when owned by Cowburn & Cowpar as painted at Polesworth. The castle on the cabinside clearly shows it was painted at Polesworth, and the flowers are particularly flamboyant.Waterway Images
The top panel of Swan’s weather board, the panel immediately inside the hatches on the righthand side.
An excellent example of a Polesworth castle on a modesty flap now on display at Ellesmere Port. It may have come from Mabel, but this is not certain.
Swan’s engine room door castle panel includes what looks like a very English church.
The flap of Swan’s table cupboard.
Another puzzle is who actually painted what, Jim or Isaiah? There are two very distinctive styles of castle painting. The same features are to be found in each but the handling of paint and the brush strokes are very different. The castles in and on the boat cabins seem to have been painted with great speed and a panache almost amounting to carelessness. The foliage and trees are very distinctive and seem to have been painted with brushes which have been dabbed into a mixture of yellow, brown and green. In true boatyard style, trunks and branches are painted onto the foliage. The mountains, usually pale blue, sometimes brown, look as if they have been hastily added before the trees and buildings with a nearly dry brush.
The other style can be very clearly seen in Harry Arnold’s article (Summer 2007 NB) on the stool which Isaiah painted for him, and also on a stool which Jes Inglis, of the Waterways Craft Guild, had the good fortune to discover on eBay. Photographs show that the castle panels on the boathouse at Snarestone are very similar. They are very precisely and carefully executed in every way and have an element of refinement not to be found in the other style.
I wonder, therefore, whether Isaiah deliberately painted in two styles, one for boat cabins which he expected to be repainted in a few years’ time, and the other for work which he expected to last and which might be presented to the wider world. An example of the latter is the coal box in the collection at Gloucester. It was not usual to paint coal boxes with pictures for the obvious reason that they were easily knocked and scuffed and it may be that this coal box was deliberately painted as an exhibition piece. The richness and subtlety of the colours are very apparent as is the careful draughtsmanship.
Another possibility is that Isaiah was responsible for the precise work and Jim the flamboyant. I would very much welcome readers’ thoughts.
A Polesworth-painted coal box is on display at the Gloucester Waterways Museum. Was it deliberately painted as an exhibition piece? The richness and subtlety of the colours are very apparent as is the careful draughtsmanship.
The top of a stool painted and signed by Isaiah Atkins, which Jes Inglis, of the Waterways Craft Guild, had the good fortune to discover on eBay. It demonstrates the precise, careful style also found on the coal box and in the boathouse at Snarestone. The door panel, table cupboard and modesty flap (previous page) clearly show the difference.
A Polesworth cabin block – but who painted it: Jim or Isaiah?
It is clear that both painters experimented with different styles of rose, as can be seen on the water can on page 18 of NarrowBoat for Spring 2007 and the photograph of Isaiah painting Leam. A practice board at Ellesmere Port is closer to what is regarded as the usual Polesworth style of rose but the petals are painted with a finer brush. Roses that are normally associated with Jim and Isaiah can be seen on the can illustrated here, and on the weather board and bed board of Swan.
They are also shown very clearly in the de Maré photographs referred to above. They are made up of four main petals painted with a broad brush and two or three at the base, with a number of small petals at the crown and a squiggle at the centre, all painted with a fine brush. Unlike most painters’ roses, the white petals are painted on an ochre rather than pink background.
A distinctive and distinguishing feature of Polesworth roses is that they are painted onto the background discs while these are still wet. As a result, the petals pick up the background colours in a most attractive way. Red petals rarely have any white highlights added to them. The leaves seem to vary according to the whim of the painter, different types of leaf often being painted on the same boat. Swags of roses are completed with a couple of daisies painted at speed with no concern for precision and often a rose bud with a white tip brushed into a wet red base. There are no tendrils, just a few touches of green paint topped with yellow. Jim and Isaiah did not paint just roses. On the flower panel rescued from Edith there is not a rose in sight. Primula and pansy type flowers were a distinctive feature of the Snarestone boathouse and are to be found on stools. Again, blending is apparent with the surrounding petals drawn into a wet centre – as seen on the stool discovered by Jes Inglis.
Take a Closer Look
Isaiah Atkins working on the roses of Leam at Polesworth, as seen in Alan Faulkner’s Claytons of Oldbury.Coventry Evening Telegraph
Roses that are normally associated with Jim and Isaiah Atkins can be seen on this water can.
I hope that this article will encourage more people to look closely at Polesworth painting and give it the attention it undoubtedly merits. Few modern painters attempt it. There are some good ‘Knobstick’ style painters and a number who paint in what might be called a ‘sub-Braunston’ style. The quality of their work varies from the outstanding to the less successful. In recent years I have attempted to paint in the Polesworth style. I do so because I love the painting and out of very great admiration and respect for Jim and Isaiah Atkins. I hope I do not disgrace their memory. Only their ghosts can judge.
The weather board and bed board on Swan.
I would like to thank Mary Gibby for permission to reproduce paintings from Swan and Phil Speight for taking the photographs; the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, and Jes Inglis for taking the photographs; Caroline Jones at the Gloucester Waterways Museum; Mike Constable at Stoke Bruerne’s Canal Museum; Tim Coghlan for the Altair images.
Not a rose in sight. The Atkins brothers painted a different species on this panel rescued from Cowburn & Cowpar’s Ethel.
Another style of Polesworth flower – an attractive change from roses – on a sampler panel at Stoke Bruerne Canal Museum.
The flowers on the Polesworth footstool are not roses but more primula like. Note the blending, with the surrounding petals drawn into a wet centre.