The lost art of pub sign writing

Sign artists at work at Steward & Patteson in the 1960s.

Sign artists at work at Steward & Patteson in the 1960s. - Credit: Archant

They are, and were, some of the most talented and underrated artists in our midst but most of us take their work for granted, walk on by, and rarely know their names.

Talented sign artist Arthur Pank at work in 1957.

Talented sign artist Arthur Pank at work in 1957. - Credit: Archant

We are talking sign artists, the men and women, who create works of art to hang outside our public houses.

Eye-catching and clever, these skilled artists have never received the credit they deserve – until now.

They have a chapter all to themselves in the best-selling book Norwich Pubs and Breweries Past and Present by Frances and Michael Holmes which has just been re-published and is back in the shops.

The artists were responsible for meticulously researching and hand-painting each sign which swung outside our public houses. On average in the 20th century each one took about ten days, from the priming to the final coat of varnish and in the early 1980s they cost around £500 to make, including the posts and iron work.

His Fellmongers’ Arms sign for the old pub in Oak Street which he took so much trouble to paint.

His Fellmongers’ Arms sign for the old pub in Oak Street which he took so much trouble to paint. - Credit: Archant

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The sketches they made would be kept for 20 years or more and often used again for popular pub names.

In 1983 Ted Newson was the chief sign writer at Norwich Brewery where he led a team of five. 'You have to be dramatic. I tell the lads anything that looks good on the easel doesn't necessarily look good from a distance.'

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The sign department was involved in a lot of research especially when it came to heraldic signs. It had to be accurate but it also had to have impact.

The book turns the spotlight on Arthur Pank, Peter Burrows and others who worked in brewery sign departments and 21st-century artists Dave Devlin and his wife Cass Hooton.

Arthur Pank started working as a sign artist at Youngs, Crawshay and Youngs Brewery at £9 a week and spent more than 30 years in the business. His diaries show the first sign he worked on was for the Bell at Barnham Broom and the last was the Cross Keys at Wymondham. In between he painted and restored more than 1,000 signs.

He went to enormous trouble to make sure his signs were spot-on and eye-catching. Many told a story.

In the 1950s he was asked to paint a sign for the Fellmongers' Arms on Oak Street, Norwich. At the time fellmongering (dealing in hides and skins) was a vanishing trade, so Arthur went to great efforts to find a retired fellmonger and persuaded him to bring out his old tools and go through the motions of preparing a sheepskin.

The Evening News said in 1953 the sign was a fine memorial to an old trade and in years to come would be of great historical interest.

Sadly the pub was demolished in 1967 and the sign is believed to have been destroyed.

Watch this space as we take a look at the work of Dave and Cass and pay tribute to the talented Peter Burrows.

A special exhibition, following the re-issue of the book, is now on at the City Bookshop in Davey Place, Norwich. It is full of information about pubs and breweries with a display of pub signs, advertising boards, bottles, matchboxes etc. It runs until October 25 and is well worth a look.

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