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Book Review: A Boatbuilders Sketchbook by Ken Keay

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Keay, K. (1993) A Boatbuilders Sketchbook (current edition with text by Sarah Hale & Paul Hunter Historic Narrow Boat Club) ISBN 978 0 9927321 0 3

This book was often mentioned when I was initially discussing renovating Eileen. People proffered their tatty photocopies of one of the increasing rare edition of the sketchbook that had been published privately by Tony Lewery in 1993.

It sketchbook was always mentioned in connection with authenticity or ‘rightness’. Ken Keay knew Black Country boats; he was a boat builder by trade, specialising in the building and repair of wooden boats, and the sketchbook celebrates a working life with wooden boats and the traditional skills that were used to build and maintain them.

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Spurred on by the knowledge that he was the last of the traditional BCN wooden boatbuilder’s and in declining health Keay set about creating a stunning visual archive of a vanished world – it was published in a private limited edition of just 180 in 1993, he died a few months later at the age of 78 yrs.

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This new edition of the sketchbook comes courtesy of the Historic Narrow Boat Club and it’s wonderful to see this visual gem of a book available to everyone at last. The HNBC edition comes with a helpful introduction by Sarah Hale & Paul Hunter providing a context for the drawings and outlining the rise and fall of Peter Keay & Son, Boatbuilder.

Ken Keay himself speaks of the history of boatbuilding on the Birmingham Canal Navigations too, but in his case words are replaced by eloquent line drawings.

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The details of the sketches I’ve included in this review hardly do justice to his intense and knowledge gaze and steady hand. I’ve purposely not included photographs of any complete pages from the sketchbook as I’d urge anyone who’s interested in our waterways heritage to buy a copy of the complete sketchbook.

Each page is packed with incidental and authentic detail, with humour, humility and humanity and is utterly unique – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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  • We're just about ready to restart the Long Trip down the Water Road.
  • Recommendations of websites & books always welcome...
  • Current reading: 'Magpie Words' Richard Caddel, 'Woods etc.' Alice Oswald & '100 Prized Poems'
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