Canals in art

A beautiful part of the natural landscape or a man-made intruder? We take a look at the depiction of British canals in art.

Cannock Chase, Trent & Mersey Canal Cannock Chase, Trent & Mersey Canal

Canals have featured in works of art all over the world, but British artists and art-lovers initially viewed our man-made waterways with some trepidation.

The picturesque

In 1768, When William Gilpin was defining the ‘picturesque’ as ‘that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture’, canals did not quite make the cut. In fact, he described the area around Cannock Chase as ‘rich and woody’ but ‘disfigured by a new canal, which cuts it in pieces’.

However, over in Venice, Canaletto’s atmospheric paintings of his local canals were well received by British visitors travelling through the city as part of their Grand Tour. King George III purchased over 200 of Canaletto’s works, including paintings, drawings and etchings, in 1763.

British landscape painting

One of the first significant works of British canal art features the Bridgewater Canal and the notable feat of engineering, the Barton Aqueduct. However, this engraving from 1766 predominantly showcases the Duke of Bridgewater as well. At this time, artists such as Gainsborough were still refining the art of British landscape painting, and neither the canal nor the aqueduct were considered suitable subjects to stand alone.

Fast forward 50 years, and a lot had changed. Canals became an accepted component of ‘the picturesque’, helped by the fact that the early years of canal mania came at a similar time as the boom in British landscape painting.

Constable

Constable immortalised canal scenes with The Lock (1824) and then revisited the same subject in A Boat Passing a Lock (1826). These paintings depict the canalised River Stour, a working lock gate and a labouring lock keeper. The Leaping Horse (1825) also features busy boatmen. What is interesting about these paintings is their portrayal of ordinary people going about their working day. They mark a shift away from painting aristocrats and pleasure-seekers.

However, the arrival of the railways in the 19th century meant that our inland waterways network fell into decline, and this continued well into the 20th century. As freight moved to the railways, canals came to be viewed with pastoral simplicity once again. For example, David Bomberg’s bargee paintings from the 1920s depict poor but honest characters, scratching out a respectable living on the canals.

Changing fortunes

But to others, canals increasingly represented poverty and moral decline. Algernon Newton painted derelict towpaths and abandoned wharves, empty places of ill repute. Nevinson’s The Towpath (1912) gives a sinister slant to a young couple’s embrace and this theme continues in Stephen Bone’s Little Venice (1952), where his cigarette-smoking man projects a distinct air of menace. In Canal and Factories (1955) , L.S Lowry portrayed what he called ‘the apocalypse of grime’.

The apocalypse of grime

L.S Lowry
Little Venice Little Venice

As all canal lovers know, the systemic decline of the inland waterways was gradually reversed after the second world war. Heavy industry moved elsewhere and canals slowly re-emerged as leisure destinations.

Nostalgia for the early days of the canals is shown in Trevelyan’s paintings from the 1970s, which include canals and narrowboats as part of a pastoral landscape.

Life and Art

Nowadays, canals are painted in a positive light by any number of amateur and professional landscape artists. Even in urban settings, canals are treated as a favourable addition to the scene. For example, Joe Scarborough playfully observes the hustle of 5pm on the Canal with vivid colour and detail.

Oscar Wilde told us that ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’, and by tracing the history of canals in landscape painting, we can see both sides of the coin. Canals have been portrayed as a bucolic part of 18th century life, a place of daily work, a component of urban decay and finally, as somewhere beautiful to pause, reflect and enjoy.

Last date edited: 8 July 2020