Voyage of art and craft

Her home on the water helped Julie Dodsworth uncover 
hidden talents that led to an exciting new career. Sharon Dale reports.

After commissioning a bespoke narrow boat, Julie Dodsworth was keen to give her brand new vessel some Rosie and Jim-style character.

The jugs and the buckby cans, used for carrying water in the old days, were a must and she fancied having a go at decorating them herself.

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Armed with tins of paint in almost every colour along with scores of different brushes she tried and failed to create the right look until realising that she needed to keep it simple.

“I went to a boat rally and one of the bargees was painting. All he had was one brush and three primary colours, which is all they would’ve had in the old days.

“I realised I was over-equipped and 
that by using red, blue and yellow you 
can mix any colour and achieve a 
vintage effect.

“I was so inspired and energised after seeing that I started again.”

Her own interpretation of the folk art using traditional canal-ware motifs including diamonds, roses, daisies, castles and scrolls were so impressive that her daughter Bethany insisted she send the designs to manufacturers.

She did and now the York-based businesswoman and mum of two is becoming a name to rival other quintessentially English brands like Cath Kidston and Emma Bridgewater.

Julie’s surface pattern designs are wonderfully nostalgic, but thanks to their cheerful colours and unusual connotations they echo the past with originality.

They’re now found in 20 countries and on everything from ceramics and textiles to stationery and candles after being manufactured under licence.

“It is incredible, I didn’t even know I could paint until I picked up a brush to paint the buckby cans,” she says.

The surprise second career started when she and husband Simon, who run York-based plant display company Dodsworths, needed a base closer to their clients in London.

After realising they weren’t going to get much for their money they shunned bricks and mortar for a floating home.

“Even poky flats were expensive so we decided to buy a canal boat instead. It had always been a dream for us and this was our excuse to go for it,” says Julie. “We’d been on a few boating holidays so we weren’t complete novices. We knew there was a lot of maintenance work involved and it didn’t bother us. Simon and I are both very practical.”

They paid £125,000 for the 58ft boat five years ago and they have moorings in Blisworth, Northamptonshire.

“It’s a home from home and we now spend half our time down there. It’s a wonderful place to be and it makes you appreciate the simple things in life,” 
says Julie.

“What is priceless for me is getting up early and seeing a summer mist on the water and the birds just waking up. It’s magical and the boating community is fantastic too. You get everyone from a knave to a king, from artists and hermits to very wealthy individuals.”

She and Simon called the boat Calamity Jane after the amateur dramatics production that brought them together 
in 1982. The living space isn’t conventional as the couple wanted free-standing furniture and an Aga-style stove. The cooker also runs the central heating and had 
to go in before the roof went on it as it is so big.

“It’s great because it means there’s no need for gas and all the safety issues 
that brings. Everything is run on oil,” says Julie.

Storage isn’t an issue as the Dodworths have pared their belongings down and 
use iPods to play music and Kindles instead of books.

Calamity Jane is the main inspiration 
for Julie’s designs, although she also 
has a studio in the garden of her home near York.

The quality of the light reflecting off the canal is ideal and she is inspired by the waterways.

She always paints onto test products before committing the final design to paper for manufacturers, which include ceramics specialists Churchill and candle makers Wax Lyrical.

“Getting into licensing is a challenge, but I think being older with business skills helped and I completely believed in my work. I knew it could be a commercial success,” she says.

“I researched the manufacturers and when I contacted some of them they 
told me they had 500 commercial artists 
on their books and they weren’t 

“I didn’t take that personally. I kept going and within 12 months I had secured 12 major licences.”

She paints in her spare time, squeezing it in around her day job and it rarely feels like work.

Julie dreamed of going to art school 
but she was forced to leave at 16 and got a job as an apprentice florist.

“I think mine is a ‘never too late’ story. I left art behind but I’ve re-discovered it through buying the boat and I still can’t believe where it’s led.

“I paint in the evening and at weekends but it’s such a joy, especially when you see the products in the shops.

“I don’t see myself as an artist though I’m more like the old working bargees who painted their boats for pleasure.”

To see more of Julie’s work and to find local stockists visit