We talk to Mia Pollak and Andrew Hudson about the signwriting renaissance in Margate.
A few dozen steps from Margate station is a ghost. Battered by time and faded by the salty sea air it reads Dominion Motor Spirit in block capitals, white on barely-there blue.
A ghost sign is a historic, hand-painted advertisement that remains beyond the business it is advertising, a tantalising piece of urban archeology. Our town is full of them: lingering in doorways, pressed against the sides of buildings, talking of the past in weather-beaten voices.
Some ghost signs date back centuries; there are examples preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. Historically signs were mainly pictorial – a shoe for a cobbler, glasses for an optician, three golden balls for a pawnbroker – until the rise in literacy in Victorian England. Signwriting then became a thriving profession, with Margate a significant hub for the craft. Notable signwriter Joseph Wales set up shop on Dane Hill in 1912 (in what’s now the Joseph Wales studio and event space), while Pearce Signworks was established in the late 18th century, at one point operating out of a steel case factory in Strasbourg Street and employing hundreds. Signwriting continued to flourish right up until the 1980s when advancements in digital printing pushed out the demand for traditional hand lettering, and the profession almost died out completely.
Fast-forward forty years, and signwriting is enjoying a resurgence. Bespoke, unique branding is becoming the favoured option for many businesses, and brush on building is making a return. There are now thought to be hundreds of signwriters working across the country, with new generations of writers emerging in Margate.
We spoke to Margate-based signwriters Mia Pollak (S&K signs) and Andrew Hudson (Hermetic Sign Company) about their love of the craft and Thanet’s important place in the history of signwriting.
What first attracted you to signwriting?
Hudson: I think signwriting is a weird coagulation of lots of my disparate interests – whether that be old pubs or American roadside motels, heavy metal band logos or skateboard graphics. Somehow all this stuff came together in my subconscious and one day I was like, I fancy giving this signwriting thing a go! I studied sculpture at university, and there are lots of techniques in signwriting – blocks and bevels and shadows – that mimic three dimensions, so maybe there’s a connection there too. lettering, fascinated by the semiotics of type and how the style and colour can convey far more than the words they spell out. I did a weekend signwriting course in December 2017 and have been obsessed ever since. I went on to study gilding and glass techniques, which I love. There’s so much you can do with gold leaf! And there’s nothing quite like the real stuff. I’m a relative beginner at some other traditional techniques like glass-etching, glue-chipping and brilliant-cutting, but am learning all the time. I love the alchemy of the craft and the effects you can create.
Tell us about the most challenging part of signwriting.
Mia: The most challenging part is getting templates secured to the shopfront fascia’s up a ladder in the wind.
Hudson: I remember being absolutely terrified the first time I actually had to get up a ladder and paint straight onto a shop fascia in front of passers-by. I had to sit down for ten minutes to compose myself and try to stop my hands shaking.
Mia: Once the design is pounced and I can get painting, I’m very happy.
Hudson: Nowadays I quite enjoy the whole spectacle of it – lots of people stop and chat and mention how nice it is to see signs being hand-painted again. Because of the old Pearce Signworks there are lots of people in Thanet who have a connection to the trade, who enjoy seeing the craft being continued.
Tell us about the most fulfilling part of signwriting.
Mia: This is tough! I enjoy the meditative process of painting and gilding. I’ve found it very therapeutic – pulling a brush along a surface. Cutting in larger letters or shapes is satisfying as the design hints at what it will become. I think when you get towards the end of creating a sign or mural, the design really starts to come together is probably the most fulfilling part.
Hudson: I worked on the Joseph Wales studios on Dane Hill and became heavily invested in researching the history of the building. I discovered that Joseph Wales himself had a family sign company, and it really gave me this feeling that I was becoming part of a lineage of signwriters who had lettered and gilded Margate’s shopfronts and fanlights in years gone by.
Is there a signwriting community?
Mia: Definitely. I’ve found it to be very generous in terms of sharing skills and tips. I think everyone who gets into signwriting has a genuine passion for it and is only happy to share their knowledge.
Hudson: When I first joined Instagram I was amazed at how supportive other signwriters were. I think I assumed that, being a kind of niche industry, it might be a bit of a closed shop, but actually there is a real worldwide community of people who are more than willing to share tips and techniques. I guess back in the day you’d have learnt signwriting as an apprentice, but that structure doesn’t really exist anymore, so it seems many of the new generation of writers are in the same boat and everyone is keen to help each other out.
Where would you like to go with your signwriting?
Mia: I recently participated in an exhibition at Hotel Michele gallery, creating artworks with my signwriting skills. Though challenging, as the “brief” was entirely my own, I was glad to make a start on this journey. Some works were simply playing with the semiotics of type. I wanted to also experiment with lettering and push what you could do with it, disrupting its traditional sequential presentation, cropping parts of letters as they fell outside the edge of the frame. Also to play around with depth and bevels employing glass-etching technique to do some of that work. This was also an opportunity to incorporate Yiddish, a language that’s part of my heritage. Using words that are sometimes familiar, sometimes not, added another dimension of interest (perhaps) as viewers might not have known their full meaning. Yiddish words can sound (when spoken out loud) very evocative. Maybe I should add some audio to them when I next exhibit!
I’ve tons more ideas and techniques I want to try out and pursue. I was really surprised and chuffed at the response to the works I exhibited which was very positive. People I didn’t even know said nice things, and I even sold a few works! Hudson: Being asked to work on the NorthDown Lager label was a dream job, and I’d love to do more logo/packaging/ brand design (it’s good to work on over the winter when the weather’s not quite as conducive to painting shopfronts). I like creating work that is informed by a signwriting aesthetic and has authentic heritage styling to it, but that is executed with a contemporary feel.
I’d love to experiment with acid etching glass, but there’s a whole range of equipment and safety stuff to consider for that, and getting hold of the acid can be quite tricky (understandably!), so that’s on the back burner for now. It would be great to work on a full-size gilded glass fascia if there’s anyone out there who fancies one.