Celebrity Signwriters, Past & Present
The ‘sign game’ has its fair share of contemporary celebrities, but what about those more famous for other pursuits that have also picked up the brush? After discovering that British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst could paint a mean Roman, due to classes with Edward Johnston at the Royal College of Art, a number of other well-known figures have emerged as former, or current, sign folk. Here’s the list to date do share any more that you know of…
Sylvia Pankhurst played a major role in gaining votes for women in the UK. Her sign at 198 Bow Road is no longer visible, but the building and fascia appear to still be there. Another political legacy was left by Robert Tressell (born Noonan) who, in addition to painting signs, penned the highly influential Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Also leaving a legacy, but for different reasons, is Harvey Ball. He was a trained sign painter and commercial artist, but only got paid $45 for creating the original ‘Smiley Face’, now of emoji fame.
Australian writer and broadcaster Keith Smith was apprenticed as a signwriter in depression-era Melbourne, an experience that formed the basis of his wonderful book ‘The Palace of Signs’. The book is extremely rare but worth getting if you can find it. The above pictures are from the book, with Keith in the third year of his apprenticeship on the left. Another Australian, the infamous Alan Bond, also trained originally as a signwriter, and once had a hand in repainting the iconic Dingo Flour sign in Fremantle, Western Australia.
In the field of sport, Australian cricketer Clarrie Grimmett was also a trained signwriter, while Mohammad Ali’s father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. was a painter of billboards and signs. Clay once said “my religion is my talent, that which supports me”, perhaps a reference to this line of work?
Perhaps the field which seems to be most closely aligned with the painting of signs is music. As with Mohammad Ali, Ronny Wood of the Rolling Stones had a sign painting father. However, many others actually wielded a brush at one time and, in the case of Dave Peacock, still do. The photo above was taken by Wayne Tanswell while writing his book, and shows Dave (of Chas ‘n’ Dave fame) at work on a large piece of pub signage.
In the field of jazz, noteworthy sign painters include Tal Farlow and Duke Ellington. In the Sign Game cartoon above Justin Green imagines the scene as Ellington announces that he’s quitting the sign game to go full tilt at his music. One can only wonder what would have happened if he’d stuck it out at the Ewall Conaway sign shop in Washington D.C…
And, in folk, we have Woody Guthrie. He developed his artistic skills with the encouragement of his father through correspondence courses. This was in Pampa Texas where he settled after leaving his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1929. While living in Pampa he painted many signs, including one for the Harris drug store, pictured above in the 1960s. The original was sandblasted in the 1970s, but was then repainted to create what is now the front of the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Centre.
In 1936 he left Pampa, bound for California, with his brushes in his back pocket. His hand-to-mouth existence was supported by his sign painting and other artistic pursuits. However, the brushes never made it with him as those he was traveling with at one stage drove off with them in the car, leaving Guthrie behind! In addition to his signs he also did cartoons for the Daily Worker Newspaper based in New York City, and then of course the music tool over.
And finally we have Eric Gill, eminent sculptor, letter cutter and type designer. His hand-painted shop front for Douglas Cleverdon in Bristol was spoted by Stanley Morison and formed the basis of what would become the Gill Sans typeface. The Clay and Fire blog has a fascinating piece of work locating the building that housed the original sign that gave birth to this famous font.
Gill brings us full circle as, like Sylvia Pankhurst, Edward Johnston was an influence on his lettering life and work. However, there may be others out there that are omited above, so please drop us a line by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any more signwriters of note, either past or present. A future post will take a look at sign writers/painters in literature and film so any of those that you know of would be great to hear about too…