Monday, 18 April 2016

Narrow Boat Painting on Flower Boxes Part 1

Today I made some art! Yaayyy!! It’s been so long… This morning I spent some time in the studio trying to tidy up and made some inroads into the chaos, providing a bit of space to work again.

Over several years my hubby has been given a bottle of port for Christmas, in a wooden gift box. These boxes were so nice that he didn’t want to throw them away, but couldn’t immediately think of a use for them. He has been working very hard in the garden this year, and it’s so lovely for him that our garden is small enough for him to be a bit creative as well as just doing maintenance and keeping the weeds down. We have a shed/summerhouse at the top of the garden, and this year he had a brainwave to paint these boxes and hang them by their rope handles on the front of the summerhouse. They are not big enough to put real plants in, so he got some little pots with silk flowering plants in them which fit nicely inside the boxes, and they look very nice hanging there, visible from the house.

01 3 Flower Boxes Ready for Painting

02 Large Flower Box Ready for Painting

03 Small Flower Box Ready for Painting

I suggested that it might be fun to do some narrow boat painting on the front of these boxes, and he agreed – they have been hanging around for ages waiting for me to get down to it, but we have been so busy, and then having the sitting room decorated, that my poor studio reverted to its usual dumping ground status when it’s not being used, and it is only this week that I can find no further excuse for not getting in there and getting stuck in with some art again.

So far this evening I have mapped out and planned what I am going to do. I took some ordinary copy paper and pressed it onto the front of the two different sized boxes and cut these shapes out.

04 Designing the Templates

Many years ago when we were on a canal holiday, I bought this gorgeous book on narrow boat painting, which is a traditional English folk art. The book has plenty of illustrations of this style in use on boats and the many traditional objects carried on the boats, and it has instructions on how to construct the basic flower shapes.

05 Narrow Boat Painting Book

I have been interested in the history of this art style for a long time. Many years ago my mum and I went away on a short mid-week break to Budapest, where I bought a black felt waistcoat in the traditional style, embroidered with brightly-coloured flowers in the style of the “Matyo rose.” Google this and you will see how attractive it is. I was wearing this waistcoat at a lecture some years later, and the lecturer, an Indian gentleman, approached me at the coffee break and asked if the waistcoat was Indian. I was intrigued by this question, knowing the history of the style, and explained where it had come from. The original true Gypsies originated in India and migrated westwards across Europe, carrying their beautiful art work with them and influencing the local culture as they went. Their caravans were traditionally decorated in this brightly coloured naïve style, and when they started to migrate onto the canal boats, known as “narrow boats” because of their long, narrow shape designed to fit in the narrow English canals, carrying the cargo which fuelled the Industrial Revolution, they began to decorate their boats in the same way. Like the caravans, the boats were home to these travelling people, living on the job, carrying the coal and iron and manufactured goods across the country.

Living in a caravan or a narrow boat, space is at a premium and many of them dreamt of living in a castle – hence the traditional “roses and castles” designs so characteristic of the style. It is very romantic and decorative, and the style has been revived in recent times and is immensely popular, on the canals (now restored to their former glory, for tourist use rather than for industrial transport) and on many objects which find their way into people’s homes.

I have done some of this painting myself in the past. It is surprisingly easy to do, with simple strokes of the brush, using bold and bright colours.

Here are the templates with the roses and daisies mapped out roughly. They will serve as a guide to painting on the boxes.

06 Templates

Here is a sketch of the flowers with a plan for the colours – I may change my mind once I get started – we shall see.

07 Planning the Colours

Watch this space to see my progress. This is going to be fun.


  1. Wonderful to see you creating. Weirdly we seem to,share the same ideas at times. I also have a set of wine boxes waiting for me to paint them. I also got into English folk art this year and borrowed lots of books from the library about narrow boat painting and English folk art! I painted one box with a non- folk art winter theme....unfortunately after painting with a few layers and lots of snowflakes I realised I the top no longer fitted. I abandoned it in my to do pile and didn't blog it.
    You've inspired me and reminded me to get back to the idea!
    I look forward to seeing your progress. Jellie x

  2. I can't wait to see how this progresses. My family is Gypsy. Very long heritage. I can tell you it is in my soul. I have a deep love of narrow boats. I have not seen that term used in many years. I really love your blog. :)

    1. Thank you for a lovely comment, Aiyana! It is wonderful to have the Gypsy culture in your soul, and I am glad that my new project has sparked your interest! I am struggling a bit with it but will succeed in the end!!

      Thank you for your kind words - I am glad you are enjoying my blog.


  3. What an interesting project.Love those red boxes! What a great use for them!

  4. Love the paintings on the caravans and narrowboats. My family history is gypsy too though the story goes my great-grandad (on my Mum's side) gave up the life so he could marry his wife. She would not marry him unless he left the life. My mum says her mum (my Nana) could remember going to visit her grandfather in his caravan.

    Sharon K


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