A Short History Of Signwriting with Melissa of Sign Hive

Today’s Short History Of is dedicated to signwriting, including a fascinating interview with Melissa of Sign Hive. You might have seen some of her magnificent mother of pearl numbers over on her Instagram gallery, if not go and check them out! 

I seem to be drawn to typography. There’s something about certain fonts and colour schemes on signage that can quickly evoke a certain era or place unlike other art forms. My own Great Aunt was a sign writer for a time and I can still remember her workshop absolutely filled to the brim with boards, paper, paint tubes, gold leaf and pots bursting with brushes. 

Although humans have been signwriting since ancient times, the first examples in Western Civilisation appeared during the Roman Empire. Roman Square Capitals, created by calligraphic strokes on marble, is the basis for all Western typography. Signwriting only became commonplace in this country once literacy rates had increased around the 18th Century, with the craft having almost fully developed by the Victorian era. At this time, demand for training increased very quickly and apprenticeships, trade schools and books for home learning became extremely popular. If you were lucky enough, you could also be trained by a family member.

It is said that the techniques for signwriting are relatively simple, but it requires an incredible amount of practise to create the even lettering and expressive fonts the craft demands. Signwriting is incredibly versatile and can be painted onto surfaces such as render, timber, metal, glass and brick. The folk art style of signwriting (or “vernacular lettering”) is most commonly recognised as fairground art, unrestrained and full of flair, decorative and colourful - it’s a joy to behold. The more restrained signwriting of the likes of the railway companies or the Ministry of Defence, uses classical fonts, spacing and lettering, simply to communicate information and no more, but even these have their own charm. Another branch of signwriting includes the painting of coats of arms, family crests and mottos for the aristocracy and upper echelons of society. 

The trade began to decline once computer designed plastic signs gained pace in the 1980s. Although these lacked the nuances and character of signwriting by hand, they were relatively cheap, quick to produce and becoming more readily available. However, since then fewer people have trained as signwriters due to a reduced number of apprenticeships and training opportunities, leading to a decline in the number of skilled craftspeople. Many of the current working signwriters were trained through the City & Guilds qualifications, which closed in the early 2000s. 

In recent years the demand for traditional hand painted signs has seen a resurgence, both commercially and in interiors. There are currently around 300 traditional signwriters across the country keeping this craft alive. Whilst there is still no official qualification, there are a number of short courses available for people to learn the skills. It is the years of commercial experience that is now difficult to acquire, but hopefully with demand increasing we may yet see an increase in these opportunities again.

One of my favourite techniques is gold leaf gilding, a historic method that uses pressed wafer thin sheets of gold applied to the surface of a sign to shimmer in the sunlight. This is one of the main reasons it is still so popular, nothing catches the eye like gold. Egyptians used gold gilding decoration for burials and it was also widely used in Chinese and Japanese culture. During the 20th Century it was banks and chemists that tended to use gold leaf on their signs lettering.

Which leads us nicely to our interview with Melissa. She often uses gold gilding, along with mother of pearl and glitter to adorn her beautiful signs. So without further ado, let’s hear from Melissa:

  • Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started in signwriting? What drew you to this craft?

I grew up in Northamptonshire, then went to University in London where I stayed until January of this year, when myself and my boyfriend moved out to Kent. My Dad is a signwriter so I have been very lucky to grow up in a house full of art and even fairground rides! Dad is a traditional hand-painted signwriter, working in a variety of expert fields from the Fred Fowle style traditional fairground art, (the kind you would see on the Gallopers or Waltzers), vintage vehicles, listed buildings, shop and pub signs etc. 

I’ve only got into signwriting myself in the last 3 years, I’m actually a professional actress, but got sick of not being in control of my schedule and finances and found the periods resting between jobs very frustrating with no creative outlet, so I wanted to find something I could be in charge of, flexible enough to work around any acting commitments and creative enough to give me a sense of fulfilment. Goodness knows why I didn’t think of this sooner! I spent around a year travelling up to my Dads studio in Northamptonshire every weekend for him to show me the ropes. I’m so lucky to have him as my teacher as he really knows his stuff and is an incredible draftsman too. 

After learning the basics of traditional signwriting, I had a go at glass gilding, and was absolutely hooked from the outset. The process is completely magical, watching the fragile leaf transform into mirror gold, and with the addition of mother of pearl inlays or glitter, I honestly don’t think I will ever tire of its beauty. So that’s the main area I focus on now, and what I enjoy working on the most. 

  • What does a typical day in your studio look like?

Ha, a mess usually! I wouldn’t say there is a typical day as such. With the glass signs you have to draw everything out and paint it in reverse on the back of the glass, which takes some getting used to! You paint the foreground colours first and work backwards, in comparison to how you would usually paint a traditional sign. There is quite a bit of drying time between colours/gilds/backing up etc. I usually try to get all my drawing done on one day, for the signs I’ll be making that week, then the foreground colours on each, then the detail/gild etc, so it’s a bit of a carousel of stages in that sense, and you have to be really organised! I’m a list maker so you can imagine all kind of things I have stuck to the walls, I’ve even taken to writing onto them directly from time to time. I tell myself it’s organised chaos, even if it looks like a scene from ‘A Beautiful Mind’!

  • What are your favourite techniques to use or signs to create?

Glass signs are my favourite by far. Working with genuine gold leaf can be really tricky as it’s so fragile, and costly if you make mistakes, but the results are so worth it in the end. I really love creating my own pieces and designs to sell, but it’s also lovely making bespoke commissions for people, as I think it’s a special thing to own an original piece of art that is often very personal and meaningful to someone. It’s the opposite of disposable consumerism, mass production and excessiveness, and I’m proud to say it’s making a big comeback these last few years. 

I think people today see the true value of traditional crafts, and the time and effort that goes into making each piece; it's handmade, tangible and tactile. Each sign is totally unique even if I’ve painted the same one twice, as the human aspect of creating by hand, not mass producing, means the slight imperfections are what, in my mind, makes them more perfect. Plus they last forever.

  • What are your go to essentials for your work?

My mahl stick (you use this to balance your hand and to stop yourself smudging what you’ve just painted). A good podcast. Copious amounts of white spirit, paint, gold leaf and mother of pearl. And a cold beer at the end of a long day painting.

  • Where do you draw inspiration from? How do you come about the ideas for your signs?

All over really. It might be colours I see somewhere that work well together, a print on a fabric I like, sets and styles in films, researching different eras, looking at vintage signwriting, fairground art, song lyrics, film quotes – generally I make signs that I would be happy to have on the wall in my own home. I like very colourful, happy, positive, unique designs, signs that make you smile when you see them.

  • Are there any craftspeople/artists/designers that you particularly admire?

Well apart from my Dad, Dave Smith is an incredible glass artist with an immense knowledge of the craft, along with Eddy Bennett and Alex May Hughes. They amaze me with their talent and what they create, it’s always very inspiring and motivating to me, I love all their work!

  • What are the challenges in your profession?

I think with any self-employment there is a huge risk. I wasn’t sure how covid would affect my business, but luckily I think people spending a lot of time in their own homes has made them look at their four walls and decide they might like something special to brighten up their home if they're going to be spending more time there! So I’ve been very lucky with my business in that respect. There is always the sense of the unknown though; will my orders drop off, will I be able to pay the mortgage, what happens if the work dries up. But I think having worked as an actress for almost 15 years I’m used to the uncertainty, the busy times and the resting, and after all, god loves a trier!

  • Do you have any advice for someone who would like to start in signwriting?

There are some fantastic courses available (Carters Steam Fair and Dave Smith run some excellent ones, amongst many others) and also apprenticeships. If you don’t have the funds and just want to have a go, then take a look at Youtube, there are lots of ‘how to’ vids on there that are really useful.

  • How do you like to relax when you're not in the studio?

An ice cold alcoholic beverage of some kind is always good! Haha. More recently it's been with a ton of DIY and decorating in our new house, which we have practically gutted and started again, plus I’m really enjoying having a garden and growing lots of flowers and plants. 

References & Further Reading

If you enjoyed that short history and want to learn more, then mosey on over to these wonderful websites:

Images and text © Castlerigg Studio

Images of own signs kindly provided by Sign Hive

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