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We spent October half term week on the borders of Withshire and Somerset, which is Wadworths Country. 6X, which is brewed in Devizes has been a favourite of mine for over 30 years.
The next time we visit the area I must make sure that I take a tour round the Wadworths Brewery for a second very good reason. Wadworths are the only Brewery left in England to retain a dedicated signwriting department. Other breweries’s pubs will still appreciate the value of a good sign but they will commission a freelance artist or an independent firm of signwriters to produce their requirements.
One thing I have noticed recently is that the Kent brewer Shepherd Neame (also excellent beer, Spitfire among them) has been signing their pubs with attractive signs, individual to each pub and appropriate to its name, but in a corporate design of black, white and red. When I noticed the first few I quite liked them; now I am starting to wonder whether they are a little too uniform.
The Telegraph had this article earlier in the year.
Thousands of people have admired the work of Wiltshire artist David Young. Yet nobody knows his name, his paintings will never hang in an art gallery and he'll certainly never rake in Damian Hirst's millions. The same goes for Rob Rowland and Andrew Grundon.
All three are members of a small and dwindling band whose roots lie in the crafts of medieval England. They paint inn signs, the traditional pictorial boards that have hung and swung outside pubs for centuries. Whether it's the White Hart or The Royal Oak, there's something cheery and reassuring about the sight of a real pub sign swinging outside a real pub.
In the Wiltshire town of Devizes, David Young has spent 15 years hand-painting more than 250 signs for local family brewery Wadworth. Most days you will find him in a long, narrow workshop around the corner from the imposing red brick Victorian brewery. Wadworth is the only brewery to have a dedicated signwriting department. Everything is done by hand.
'One of the most crucial things a pub sign should say is welcome!' says Young. 'It should be eye-catching, attractive and maintain some of that unique tradition. Obviously the pub's name should be clearly understood without the use of lettering. After all, their original purpose was to entice a largely illiterate population through its doors – although personally I like the idea of the lettering complimenting the image.'
The best pub signs, apparently, are those that use traditional material: endurable exterior grade oil paints on aluminium or hardwearing hard wood. Traditionalists look down on those who buy bespoke sign-making software.
'You have more control over the image with a true hand-painted traditional pub sign,' says Gloucester-based freelance painter Rowland. 'It is also more geared to that warm atmosphere a pub is supposed to have. With a computer the surface is so smooth it's almost like a transfer.'
Grundon, who produces signs for Cornish brewers St Austell, agrees: 'I have seen pubs that have had the spirit sucked out of them with plastic or vinyl signs. At heart I am a traditionalist; I like to be sharpening pencils and using gold leaf. It is important to keep these skills alive because once they are lost you are one generation away from losing that skill.'
Last year we had our Sunday lunch in the Canal Tavern in Bradford on Avon. I took the first photo top left of the group below. I like canal art. I like its exuberance, the big fat bunches of roses in shades of bright pink and red.
This year I was walking past and there were the men of the sign department in action changing the signs from a Canal Art painting of pale pink and crimson on dark blue for a new set of pink, red and orange on bottle green. They changed all the signs except the hanging sign with a canal and narrow boat scene. It was carefully and deftly done and I wish I could have watched them for longer but I would have missed my train.
I can’t fault the new signs, other than my personal taste preferred the pale flowers on blue background to the warm tones on green.
Between the three of us we photographed several other Wadworth’s signs that week.
The Fleur de Lys at Norton St Philip and the Red Lion at Lacock are very traditional.
I think that the more recently painted signs, like the Somerset Wagon at Chilcompton and the Old Ham Tree in Holt are treated with some sort of varnish to give added protection as their shiny reflective surface proved harder to photograph. But not impossible.
And protecting the surface of such fine work and using hard wearing material is a worthwhile exercise.
Wadworth’s were putting up all new signs at the Canal Tavern. I believe that some of the old ones are exhibited at the Brewery studio. The temptation to ask whether the redundant sign was for sale had to be resisted.
If you look at the bottom signs of this second group there is the Chequers near Emerson Park, Essex where if you look closely you can see that the knight on horseback has been painted over an earlier chess board. And I think the sign for the Owl and Pussy Cat in Felixstowe, which is a modern pub next to a superstore, must have been painted in child’s crayon so faded is it, in which cannot be a long period open to the elements.
You can see that the picture would have been very appealing and the artists work has been wasted.
Even if I have exhausted this pub sign series by the time of my next visit west, I definitely intend a trip to Devizes.