Our fleet are currently taking it in turns to have a re-paint in the new paint-shed at Bradford Wharf. They are still looking good, but after 3 years we thought they deserved a fresh coat so the remain looking great.

Canal boat painting is something of an art form and you will recognise the iconic artwork that traditionally decorates the narrowboats.

Our boats are decorated with our white horse logo and their names, but canal artist Phil Speight may like to add a few of his flourishes too!

Recently The Guardian published an article about Phil and his work. Here are some of his thoughts about canal art.

Phil Speight is one of the most experienced and influential canal boat painters in the country. He has earned an enviable reputation not only as a painter but as a teacher of the traditional skills he cares about so passionately

Phil trained as a coach painter in the 1960s then became a full-time painter, sign writer and decorator of traditional canal boats in the early 1980s

‘The Victorian ideal was for three different typefaces on the one boat panel. My letters are made up, they’re sort of a blunt Roman, but strictly speaking, on a Roman you wouldn’t find a twiddly bit on the letter ‘E’. I just do what I think looks appropriate, that looks good but looks particularly good on a boat’

‘It’s a dignified art, or at least it should be. It’s hugely significant to the boat people. It’s their art and I hate to see it being turned into a souvenir thing’

‘Roman letters usually have a very fine serif with a point, but these are cut off sharp, which probably has another name which I don’t know. The bottom line is just a sans serif block capital and it would be very difficult to do that wrong, really. Maybe just a bit of a flow on some of the letters with a bit of thick and thin, a tiny amount, just to give them some interest’

Phil Speight the Narrowboat Artist

‘There are all sorts of silly myths about the designs with supposed origins in Germany or from tea plantation wagons in India and Afghanistan. Nonsense. Some say it’s gypsy painting. But when this style of decoration was developing towards its height of excellence there weren’t any Romany vans in England, so there was no influence at all. They are just two completely separate cultures and their flowers are different, the subjects are different and they’re just parallel developments’

‘I never know what a castle’s going to look like when I start painting it. The background is the mountains and the water, such as it is, and then I always put the middle turret in with a path coming out of it. Then I just put the buildings in and paint the land up to the buildings. Castles are super, super simple and the masters I watched could always do them in about 20 minutes, every time’

‘As time went on and money on the canals became harder to find, the style became simpler and simpler. They realised that a boat that was painted with pretty pictures wasn’t actually earning its keep. So there was a high point in boat decoration that nobody nowadays seems to remember, because of course we can’t see it. We’ve only got old photographs and etchings to tell us how elaborate this painting was’

‘There was a myth that each petal had to be created from a single stroke of the brush. No, they don’t. As soon as you get enthusiasts involved in anything they very quickly write a set of so-called rules’

‘Generally speaking, first off, owners tell me what their boat’s called. If I take on a job without seeing the boat at all or without having met the people, I won’t tell them how I intend to decorate it until I’ve met them, had a chat with them and seen the boat’

‘I don’t draw flowers exactly mirroring each other and perfectly symmetrically because, for one, it’s boring and also flowers simply don’t grow that way. My work is less regimented than most of the more modern painters, but they’re subject to fashion as much as anybody and the market for what we do has certainly changed dramatically’

‘This is an important part of British culture which has been largely neglected by the authorities and the Arts Council’

‘All I’ve ever wanted is to produce stuff that the old working boat families would have liked. If some modern person on the canal doesn’t like it, I don’t really care. If they like it and I’m not insulting their tradition then as far as I’m concerned it’s right and that’s all that matters and I’m happy’

If you would like to see more of Phil’s artwork then you can have a look at The Guardian’s article in pictures