Main content

Raising a glass to the original street art

9 November 2015

The axiom says art is everywhere and nowhere is that more true than in the humble pub sign. Since the 12th century, inns and pubs have been given names; and, to help out a mainly illiterate population, painted signs with bold images and bright colours to make them easily identifiable and welcoming.

Not all pubs are succumbing to the recent computer generated trend, with many still opting to put hand-painted art onto Britain's streets. But maybe best admire it on the way in, rather than on the way out!

We asked PETER GORMAN from the Inn Sign Society to choose his favourite ten signs helping to turn our streets into free galleries.

THE FOLLY BRIDGE, OXFORD

Wiltshire artist David Young has spent more than 20 years painting signs for the Devizes Brewery Wadworth. In a 2009 article in the Telegraph, David was quoted as saying “One of the most crucial things a pub sign should say is Welcome! 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.”

Folly Bridge, Oxford. Photographed by Lester Cooper, 2011

This sign shows the Grade I listed Folly Bridge over the Thames south from Central Oxford on the Abingdon Road. The bridge was erected in 1825 to designs by little known London architect Ebenezer Perry. The origins of the name are uncertain although it’s been suggested it came from around 1650 after the alchemist Roger Bacon who lived at “Friar Bacon's Study” which stood across the north end of the bridge prior to it being demolished in 1779.

The pub has been re–named The White House and now has a lettered sign only.

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, WINCANTON, SOMERSET

Uncle Tom's Cabin - recently commissioned

This sign on the high street in Wincanton, Somerset, was commissioned by the landlord as a tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett, a regular at the pub, who died in March 2015. He was author of the Discworld series of fantasy books. The sign was produced by the novels' illustrator Richard Kingston. It shows the Discworld watering hole, The Broken Drum.

THE RIFLEMAN, TWICKENHAM, MIDDLESEX

The Rifleman Twickenham, Middlesex by Rob Rowland

Rob Rowland has created several designs and paintings for signs, two of which have been voted Pub Sign of the Year in 2012 and 2013 by members of the Inn Sign Society.

One Hall and Woodhouse pub in Iver has a sign with the late Sid James riding a black horse from his role in the movie Carry on Dick. In the background is Pinewood Studios where the Carry On movies were made. The large village was also a well-known haunt for highwaymen in days of old.

A former Courage pub which had a standard old time rifleman sign got a new sign in 2012. This sign was dedicated to Frank Edwards (1893-1964), the Footballer of Loos. He was a rifleman with the London Irish Rifles and on 25 September 1915 led men over no-man’s land to storm enemy trenches by kicking a football ahead of him. He was wounded in the encounter. The ball is still in the London Irish Museum. The presentation of Pub Sign of the Year in 2014 was attended by pipers from the London Irish and his grandaughter Sue Harris.

THE BLACK HORSE, IVER, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

Carry On star Sid James makes an appearance

THE THREE TUNS, BARNSTAPLE, DEVON

Stanley Chew painted more than 700 inn signs – mostly for Bass pubs in the West Country. Chew’s work epitomised quality rather than quantity. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and came to England with his family in 1920. He won a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Art from 1936 to 1938. He saw active service in the army during the Second World War.

He started painting signs quite by chance in 1960. His first sign was done ‘on-spec’ as he passed a local pub bearing a plain lettered sign. “I could do better and showed the landlord my initial sketch, which he liked. I was lucky as he was the chairman of the local licenced victuallers association, and he spread the word. From then on, I worked on the principle that I only paint something if it is going to end up with a cheque,” he said.

Illustrations of signs bearing the name The Three Tuns are often fairly banal. The pictured sign from Barnstaple, Devon, shows the ale of one tun being decanted into a small wooden bucket outside a thatched alehouse. The drayman is talking to an attractive lady and fails to notice that the ale is overflowing down the cobbled street.

In 2003, Stanley's work was recognised posthumously by Royal Mail when he was chosen as one of five artists, to mark the nation’s contribution to the Europa theme of “Poster Art”. Consequently the Black Swan at Falmouth, Cornwall, became the European value for the set of commemorative stamps issued on 12 August 2003.

MILK CHURN, MELKSHAM, WILTSHIRE BY PHIL TAYLOR

The Milk Churn, Melksham, Wiltshire by Phil Taylor

The Milk Churn, a Hall and Woodhouse pub, opened in 2014 and features the painter, the artist Phil Taylor, decorating a milk churn. A Spitfire aircraft is seen flying past the barn as the pub is near the entrance to a former airforce base. The double-sided sign also features a painting done by 95-year-old Victor Steel from Rumsley, who won a competition at a Dorset Arts Festival. As a young man he worked and lived on a farm in Melksham. The sign was voted Pub Sign of the Year in the 2014 competition run by the Inn Sign Society.

JOSEPH CONRAD, SUFFOLK

Wetherspoon's The Joseph Conrad in Lowestoft, Suffolk, opened in Station Square in 2014. The unusual 3D sign has a ship in a bottle. In June 1878 a British steamer, the Mavis, docked at Lowestoft and a 20-year-old sailor, Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, set foot for the first time on British soil. Within ten years he gained his Masters certificate, and then drew upon his experience when he went on to become one of the greatest English novelists, writing under the name Joseph Conrad.

THE FELLOWSHIP, BRISTOL.

In March 2013 artist David Bishop of Midsomer Norton, passed away at the age of 66. He gained fame as a painter of murals and portraits, painting hundreds of excellent pub signs in the south-west. His 1983 sign at Filton Avenue, Bristol, shows an aircraft in the sky. This was a Bristol Brabazon prototype (1949–1953), the only one ever completed and to fly.

JOLLY POSTIE, ROYSTON

Jolly Postie, Baldock Street, Royston, Hertfordshire .

A postman complete with letters. This pub was originally a Crown Post Office. After being empty for a while it became the Barracuda, then the Old Crown, and it has now been taken over and re–named by the Hertfordshire Brewer McMullens. It re–opened in April 2014.

WHYTE HART, BLETCHINGLEY

WHYTE HART, BLETCHINGLEY, SURREY.

This inn claims to date from 1388, in the reign of Richard II; its sign carries his emblem of the White Hart. However, a Surrey History Centre archaeological survey of Bletchingley says that the oldest part of the inn dates back to c1500. Whatever its exact age, it’s an old inn with a lovely sign with decorative frame.

RELATED LINKS