The Pound Sterling may be falling in value and the Royal Navy may no longer rule the waves, but every British pub still has its unique, hand painted sign greeting passers-by. Many tourists are surprised to discover that the signs are still used in the busiest cities as well as in the quietest rural villages. Although modern, internally lit advertising signs are used elsewhere, they don’t appeal to the British pub crawler.
Unlike the US, where many beer brands are sold by all bars, British pubs are often owned by one brewery which sells that brand exclusively. (Those that sell all brews are called ‘Free Houses’ and that’s usually stated on the pub sign.) The breweries have a lot of say about the look and management of the pub. That starts with the sign over the door. Most breweries have staff artists who do all the sign painting. While some are full-time employees of the brewery, most are sign painters whose work is known to the company and who are called upon regularly.
Tony Sinnott is a typical staff artist. He owns his own sign painting company, but he does most of the pub signs for four different breweries in the Oxford area. Sinnott began by moonlighting while working for another sign painter. He gradually built up his after-hours work – in part by writing to all the area breweries and boasting about his abilities – until he could go into business for himself. He thinks his background is typical. “I don’t think most pub sign painters have any formal training. I know a few who are failed artists, but most get in by the back door.”
The bulk of Sinnott’s work consists of simply repainting existing signs that have fallen victim to the British weather. “Seventy-five percent of the signs remain the same,” he says. “I might change the colors and improve the artwork, but I don’t usually alter the sign unless the brewery that owns the pub wants it done.”
If a brewery does want a different scene, Sinnott supplies an oil sketch for their approval. “Some companies pay for the sketch whether or not they use it; others figure it into the cost of the final product, and some don’t pay for it at all.”
Sinnott has streamlined his work methods to let him finish two or three signs a week. He works in an almost assembly line fashion. First, he copies the existing artwork on tracing paper. Then he removes any paint from the board and primes and undercoats the sign. The design is then pounded back onto the board. He applies artists’ oils very thinly for the pictorial and design work.
“I try to paint all the signs at the same time,” he says. “I do all the skies, then all the backgrounds. It gives the paint on each sign a chance to dry and is simply easier than doing each sign individually.”
The final step is application of a high-alkyd varnish. “The varnish is the weakest element of the painting. I use the high alkyd because it stays supple and gives with the weather conditions. If the varnish goes hard, it cracks, and the painting must be redone.”
For Sinnott, there are certain basics in design for pub signs. “A good sign painter creates an impression with a few brushstrokes, rather than filling in a whole scene. You have to remember that you’re working with something that’s 15 feet off the ground and must be seen and interpreted from a far distance and often from a moving vehicle. A lot of amateurs forget that. If I am copying someone else’s work, I try to learn something from him.”
While tourists are enchanted by the signs, the charm wears off when you paint them every day. “There’s not as much variety as people would think. There are a lot of places called “The Lamb,” for instance. You can have the animal facing in a different direction or maybe with its left leg up in one picture and the right in the next, but you run out of variations pretty quickly.”
While breweries find it more convenient and usually cheaper to have regular artists, freelancers still survive. Landlords – the pub managers – can request permission to commission a sign if they feel the regular artist can’t meet their needs.
One busy freelancer is Pat Murphy. He has a year’s backlog of commissions for both pub signs and other work. A retired art teacher, Murphy looks upon sign painting as less a business than a continuation of British history and tradition. He thinks that’s one reasons the signs are still used.
“Pubs reflect the social and political stories of an area, the recreations the people have, the origins of their lives. The signs are as much about an area as any guidebook.”
With that in mind. Murphy starts his design with the name of the pub. “I try to find out if there is a story behind it or if there is a local connotation. For example, a pub called “The Bulldog” might need a picture of a dog in one village, bit in Oxford “Bulldog” is the local slang for the University security men.”
Like Sinnott, Murphy concentrates on large, clear images rather than detailed pictures. Coloring must also stand out from the surrounding background. “A pastoral scene hanging from a large tree in a hedgerow would be lost among the leaves.” He finds that strong colors keep their image longer as well as helping to attract motorists.
Most signs in his part of England – the flat, unprotected eastern coast – are made of metal, not wood. While the signs themselves may last longer than wooden ones, the artwork needs just as much protection. In addition to the most fade-resistance oil he can find, Murphy uses “a virtually indestructible varnish” to protect his signs.
Both men find that each brewery makes its own demands on design. “One brewery doesn’t put the name of the pub on the sign if the name is obvious,” says Sinnott. Murphy finds that on almost all of his signs, the name of the brewery must be included and must be larger than the name of the pub.
Different firms use different materials, as well. “One brewery sends me a metal plate. They take the repainted plate and build a wooden frame around it,” says Sinnott. “It’s actually nice, because I know the signs will all be the same size and will be well made. Others use wooden signs that arrive in various conditions, not all of them useable.”
While Britain is doing away with the paper Pound note and is replacing its red telephone boxes with chrome-and-steel ones, the pub sign is apparently untouchable. “A few years ago,” recalls Sinnott, “one brewery did away with its signs. Everything was plastic. All the pubs called, say, “The King’s Arms” had the same sign. They figured to save a great deal on maintenance and artists’ fees. But the signs were never popular. Customers complained, and the plastic signs are being replaced with traditional ones.”
Some things can’t be changed.