Ron Hough, who died last year after dedicating his entire life to decorating canal boats and associated ware, is finally being celebrated for his contribution to folk art. PETER FROST reports.
Strolling round the impressive Folk Art gallery at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, it would be easy to believe that folk art is a dead study — a thing of the past. Most of the remarkable artefacts on show here are at least a century old.
Just before last Christmas, however, the tiny canal-side village of Braunston in Northamptonshire mourned the death of the last truly traditional painter of the colourful working boats of the English canals — surely one of our most beautiful and long-lasting folk art genres.
The painter was Ron Hough and he had been keeping the tradition of painting colourful canal boat roses and castles alive for more than half a century. “Roses and castles” is the generic term for the colourful designs that brightened working canal boats.
Simplified flowers resembling roses, daisies and other blooms, exotic castles and stylised houses and bridges were features of the designs that Ron combined with distinctive styles of lettering for boat names and company details on cabin side panels.
He was born on in 1934 in Birmingham into a boat family working on the canal. The youngest of four children, unusually, Hough was born in a house and not in a tiny canal boat cabin.
His grandfather John was a boatman and the family were recorded in the 1911 census living aboard the narrowboat Shamrock. In 1923 three of his grandparents’ children are listed as attending the local school during the famous the Boatmen’s Strike at Braunston where some 60 boats blocked the canal for 14 weeks to protest against cuts in wages and for the right to join a union.
In the 1930s Hough’s parents Harriet and William separated. Harriet settled in village of Braunston while William continued boating. Both are buried among the many other canal folk in Braunston churchyard. It is his final resting place too.
Harriet had to bring up four children in the height of the Depression. Ron pumped the organ in the village church — it paid better than singing in the choir. Despite this, he never became a religious man.
At 15 his first job was as an apprentice with engineers British Thomson-Houston in Rugby, but he hated factory work and lasted less than a year, moving on to work for canal carrier and boat builder Samuel Barlow in their Braunston yard as an apprentice building and repairing canal boats.
He was attracted to the yard’s tradition for colourful boat decoration and the yard foreman Frank Nurser — a famous boat painter in his own right — taught Hough all he knew.
After national service Ron continued mastering his canal painter trade and moved into the new world of canal leisure boating, maintaining and painting his roses and castles on the new fleets of holiday cruisers.
When things were quiet he produced painted canal-ware for fashionable London shops and continued working as a canal painter well into his seventies.
Sadly arthritis stopped him painting in 2010 and he died in December 2015, aged 81.
Canal boats are used in hard and damp conditions and need repainting every eight to 10 years. Consequently the original painter’s work is often lost.
Hough’s work, however, can still be admired at the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne, especially the replica of the back end of the wooden butty Sunny Valley (below) showing the elaborate canal folk art decoration in all its glory as painted by Hough in 1962 and looking as good today as it did then.
Braunston marina is planning a major exhibition of Hough’s work at its Traditional Boat Rally over the weekend of June 25-26. A memorial plaque to Hough will be unveiled next to the one commemorating the 1923 strike in which his family took part.
Another collection of painted canal-ware, as well as many other examples of British folk art, is at the Compton Verney Gallery in Warwickshire and was built up by Enid Marx, a distant cousin of Karl.
Enid was herself a talented designer and illustrator whose work ranged from the first ever Queen Elizabeth postage stamps (below) to upholstery material for London Transport trolleybuses.
She was an early champion of people’s or folk art. Along with her partner, the historian Margaret Lambert, they collected all kinds of folk art in the 1930s at a time the art establishment wrote off most such art as the crude and naive work by untutored working people.
The couple started to collect and record items such as pub signs, corn-dollies, gingerbread moulds, fairground art, home-made toys, theatre playbills, ship figureheads, weather vanes, embroidered samplers, quilts and of course, painted canal-ware.
In 1947 Marx and Lambert published English Popular and Traditional Art — the first meaningful book on the subject and a more detailed English Popular Art followed in 1951
In the introduction to the first edition the couple defined their subject as “the art which ordinary people have, from time immemorial, introduced into their everyday lives, sometimes making it themselves, at others imposing their tastes on the product of the craftsmen or of the machine.”
Lambert died in 1995 aged 89 and Marx in 1998 aged 95, but their amazing collection is on permanent display at Compton Verney in Warwickshire and is open to the public.
Today the art establishment has at last begun to re-evaluate folk art and the Marx-Lambert collection formed a major part of the much-acclaimed Tate exhibition of British Folk Art in 2014.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 4 March 2016.