Waterway writer, cartographer, boater and cyclist Richard Fairhust takes us on a tour of Britain's 3,000 mile art gallery - and looks at the long history between art and the canals.
If you’re lucky enough to catch a touring theatre performance, or you live near a waterside art gallery, you’ll have experienced the artistic life of the waterways at first hand. Yet the towpaths reach many more people – in their role as Britain’s longest art gallery.
Since the 1990s, sculptors have chosen the canals as the setting for a vast array of public art. Sometimes the subject matter is the waterways themselves: a navvy with pick and shovel, a boatman pushing a lock-gate. Elsewhere, the subject might be literally a million miles removed – as in the case of the Somerset Space Walk, along the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal. It might be hewn out of stone, or gently fashioned from fine steel.
Above all, this is a very democratic form of art. There’s no gallery entry fee, no opening hours. You can run your hands over the sculpture without being admonished by a stern-faced attendant. Essentially, you can relate to the art any way you want to.
The Coventry Canal Art Trail is the finest example. Along the 5 1/2 mile cul-de-sac to Coventry Basin, 39 artworks have been installed, each relating to the canal or the history of Coventry. They bring to life the whole history of the canal in three-dimensional form. At the basin, James Brindley looks magisterially over the canal he designed. Further along, a set of primitive navvies’ tools remind the visitor that this waterway was built by hand, without the aid of excavators or pneumatic drills.
The Brindley statue was the work of none less than Royal Academician James Butler. But there are local artists represented here, too, and Coventry’s schools were invited to become involved. The whole project cost just £350,000, the price of just one middle-ranking painting displayed in a gallery, yet with far greater reach.
The Somerset Space Walk is a mile longer, but comprises just one artwork. It’s a size model of the solar system, with the planets strung out at proportional distances from the sun. Seven miles’ walk will take you all the way to Pluto. In a neat nod to waterway heritage, these space-age installations double as traditional canal mileposts.
The form and furniture of the waterways are popular sources of inspiration. On occasion, the object itself becomes the artwork. End-of-life lock gates have often been reused as simple sculptures; one set was recycled as a bullring at the Glastonbury Festival, bringing the canals to a whole new audience. The technicolour ‘circle of light’ which illuminates Newbold Tunnel, on the Oxford Canal, has inspired a thousand photos.
And though the famous James Brindley has been immortalised in sculpture in both Coventry and Stoke-on-Trent, canalside art also serves to celebrate the ‘unknown boatman’, the thousands who worked the waterways in their commercial days. At Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire, a sculpted lock-keeper and his son push open a lock gate, just yards from the present day equivalent at Tuel Lane Lock. Next to Market Harborough’s canal basin, a timber-toting labourer has been reborn as a sundial sculpture, drily christened ‘Frank the Plank’. In Scotland, the age of the boat-horse is to be commemorated with two gigantic horses’ heads guarding the entrance to the Forth & Clyde Canal.
Richard Fairhurst is a waterway writer and cartographer, boater and cyclist. He blogs regularly at canal.travel
Last date edited: 16 July 2015