Canals on canvas

Our canals and waterways have captivated artists for centuries, inspiring some of the finest paintings in British art. They’ve been depicted as pastoral idylls, places of leisure and industrial monstrosities; celebrated and immortalised on canvas.

Come with us as we take a closer look at some examples of canals in art and try to unlock some of the attitudes, influences and ideas captured in these incredible paintings.

 

A Panorama of Nottingham from the Canal: Paul Sandby

A picture depicting canals in Georgian times A Panorama of Nottingham from the Canal, Paul Sandby, c.1796 (image courtesy of The University of Nottingham)

Paul Sandby’s sweeping landscape gives us a unique insight into the early years of canals. Known as ‘the father of the watercolour’, Sandby depicts his hometown as a place of leisure and labour, with well-dressed figures gathering on the near bank for a spot of fishing, while eelers toil in the background. This is a land in transition; the canal, while peaceful and serene, represents a gateway to the town’s historic castle and burgeoning industrial heart.

 

Canal and Factories: L.S. Lowry

Oil painting by L.S.Lowry showing industry and people Canal and Factories, Laurence Stephen Lowry, 1955 (image courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland)

A wonderful example of his distinctive industrial style, Lowry’s Canal and Factories, depicts the cityscapes of Runcorn and Widnes on the River Mersey in 1955. Populated by Lowry’s famous ‘matchstick people’, at first glance the painting may appear simple or even naïve; but that was part of Lowry’s genius – taking the everyday, the mundane, and imbuing it with meaning. A closer look at Canal and Factories reveals a stark, industrial landscape, the flat, insipid tones evoking a bleak vision of post-war Britain.

 

Leeds Canal: Charles Ginner

An oil painting of old Leeds Canal 1914 Leeds Canal, Isaac Charles Ginner, 1914. © Leeds Museums and Galleries, UK / Bridgeman Images

Heavily influenced by the vibrant impressionism of Van Gogh and Gaugin, Charles Ginner’s Leeds Canal depicts the old wharf on the River Aire in Leeds, with barges being offloaded in the foreground. Factories and warehouses cling to the hillside and giant smokestacks dominate the skyline. With its muted colours and thick, regular brushstrokes, Leeds Canal beautifully captures the reality of British industry in the early 20th century. The heavily textured surface and bold outlines bring the scene to life, transporting us to a bygone era.

 

Mill Girls, Ashton, Lancashire: Harry Rutherford

A painting from 1948 depicting female Mill workers Mill Girls, Ashton, Lancashire, Harry Rutherford, 1948 (image courtesy of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council)

Unlike his friend and contemporary, L.S. Lowry, Rutherford favoured a more orthodox style, using vibrant tones and fleshed-out characters. Like many of the characters in his paintings, Rutherford was perceived to be an unsung hero amongst the ‘northern school’ of painting. His 1948 work, Mill Girls, Ashton, depicts four mill girls climbing the steps on Park Parade in Ashton-under-Lyne, with the Old Wharf and Albion Mills framed in the background. Featured on the cover of the popular magazine, John Bull, the painting is a celebration of local people and industry, with the canal at its heart.

 

Canal Lovers: Jock McFadyen

A couple embrace in front of an industrial scene in 1993 Jock McFadyen, Canal Lovers, 1993-4. © Jock McFadyen/Museum of London

A rising star in the era of punk, contemporary artist, Jock McFadyen, is often credited with bringing that same raw energy to his painting. Canal Lovers depicts a couple embracing passionately against a grim, urban backdrop, with a graffitied railway bridge and faceless grey buildings. This isn’t Wilson’s romantic idyll, but it isn’t Lowry’s desolation either. This is post-industrial Britain, where our industry, our inner cities and even our canals are being redefined.

Last date edited: 4 February 2022

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