Artists paint a picture of revival for the craft of signwriting
Nick Garrett is preparing his studio in suburban south London for his students. Paper, paintbrushes and masking tape are laid out ready for the arrival at the weekend of 12 pupils. Mr Garrett in a shapeless jumper and slouchy jeans mixes high energy with a laid-back approach. This however will not be a relaxed session for hobbyist painters. Rather, these students will be learning the art of signwriting, with the hope of making their way into a niche trade, painting signs for shops, pubs and even houses.
“I can make London more beautiful. It’s a huge gift,” says Mr Garrett with missionary zeal. The 56-year-old’s students have included a policeman and a firefighter, though most have an art or design background.
His grandfather was a stonemason, creating the lettering on statues around London. “It’s in my DNA,” he says. After bluffing his way into jobs, Mr Garrett’s real training came from working with a ticket-writer (someone who wrote the prices out in shops) turned signwriter.
“People think [signwriting has] gone but it has undergone an enormous revival.” Styles have been enlivened by the design flair of modern graffiti and tattoo artists. It has been electrified, he says, by art from the streets.
In learning the craft of letters, his disciples will be going up against machine operators printing and cutting acrylic, vinyl and neon signs. The new technology hollowed out the industry in the 1980s and 1990s. But the generation of sign producers who programme computers to cut out their letters lack the human touch, and the mastery of painting and gilding, says Mr Garrett, who studied at Camberwell School of Art: “They won’t understand how the serif is produced. They won’t understand the structure of letters.”
Tod Swormstedt set up a museum in Cincinnati in 1999 during what he calls a midlife crisis; it was dedicated to the history, technology, commerce and culture of signs and is now called the American Sign Museum. When he held a 40-year anniversary gathering of the Letterheads meet — a gathering of signwriters — 350 people turned up from all over the world. “A grass roots movement has grown,” he claims.
The revival, practitioners say, is fuelled by business owners wanting their shops, restaurants and pubs to stand out from bland and identikit neighbours. Moreover, shops competing with online retailers must work harder to get customers through the door.
Customers want quality, says Mr Garrett, and turn to those able to paint by hand. “People want an intimacy. They want a sense of the individual.”
Working as a signwriter is not easy, says John Pope, another with a fine art background. As well as being “obsessed with letters and lettering”, signwriters must be prepared to be up a ladder in the wind for hours at a time. “You have to be a bit of a mountain goat,” he says. The wind is the hardest part of the job, says Mr Garrett. “Your drawing goes all over the place.”
Clients not paying is also a concern. And while there is scope for great creativity, Mr Pope warns, no one can afford to be too lofty to write a toilet sign: “It pays the bills.”
London-based Richard Gregory is sceptical about a resurgence of his craft. The 60-year-old, who studied signwriting at college, recalls how he was overwhelmed with demand at first. Then he found work creating banners for trade unions; now he paints house numbers in Kensington and Belgravia. Passers-by used to stop him to ask for a business card, now they ask for a picture.
Becoming a master signwriter takes years of study and practice, and deep understanding of letterforms and familiarity with materials. While the craft will never die, in the computer age there is simply not enough work to remain viable, he insists.
As for internet tutorials, he is dubious: it makes “everybody a designer”.