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Peter Hardwicke, Signwriter (Part Two)

January 3, 2012
by the gentle author

Over a year ago, I featured Peter Hardwicke, the talented East End signwriter who may be the last in our metropolis working solely by eye. Yet since he continues, working all this time to enhance our streets, I decided that it was time for another survey, so he may receive due credit for his more recent designs that might otherwise pass as anonymous.

Here you see Peter in Puma Court outside Cleo’s Barber Shop where he was in the process of adorning the frontage with some handsome utilitarian lettering, celebrating this modest family business begun by Kyriacos Cleovoulou in 1962 and now carried on by his children Renée, George and Panayiotis. The capitals that Peter has used for “Cleo’s” are a font which is derived from the work of one of his nameless predecessors in the early twentieth century. In fact, the adjoining building has an old faded sign which reads “Jones Dairy” in this same lettering and the work of this unknown Spitalfields master is also to be seen fifty yards away, spelling out S. Schwartz at 33 Fournier St, and may still be discerned upon the facade of the former Market Cafe, now Townhouse at 5 Fournier St.

This style of elegant yet undecorated hand-painted lettering with its subtle detail and gothic idiosyncrasy sits naturally here in Spitalfields among the eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, and is ideally suited to the independent traders which define the nature of this area at the edge of the City. In fact, this particular alphabet has proved so popular that Peter is now designing it as the “Spitalfields” font, a unique face that has its roots in the history of this neighbourhood and gives typographic expression to the specific quality of the place. As well as Cleo’s, you can see it locally on the English Restaurant in Brushfield St and in Columbia Rd on Angela Flanders perfumery and the Columbia Pottery. Most recently, Peter painted it in the front of Tracey Emin’s new shop in Crispin St, using a soft white tone upon a dark green ground to create the visual identity for this high profile commission, which has both a vibrant graphic quality and looks like it belongs too.

When I came upon Peter in Puma Court in the week before Christmas, he was shivering in the chill and admitted to me that he was waiting for the paint to dry. So I persuaded him to join me for a cup of tea, on the principle that the paint would dry just as quickly unsupervised.

“I work outside all year round and I can deal with the cold but the rain has stopped me in my tracks – it’s unprofessional to carry on because water and paint don’t get on very well. The customers get nervous and ask, ‘Will it come off?’” Peter confessed to me as he sipped from his steaming mug, ever conscientious to finish his work before Christmas.

“For ten years, I worked for a company of general signwriting contractors doing brewery work, church and builders’ boards and generic signwriting, but I wasn’t stimulated by it, working to graphic designers’ artwork.” he explained when I asked how he came to be working solo. “I am an old school signwriter that likes to talk directly to the client to select the fonts and the colours. I’ve found it a rewarding way to work, dealing with independent shopkeepers. I like to look at the built environment and choose fonts that are sympathetic to the architecture and the surrounding cityscape. I look at the other shops and I do research.”

This is Peter’s special quality, that he pays attention to the world around him and creates work which sits naturally in the street, occupying its location boldly while being sympathetic to its neighbours. He told me that he recognises the signature of around ten unnamed signwriters whose work is visible in the East End and who have been his predecessors over the last century. “When I look at Jones Dairy and S.Schwartz, I can tell it’s the same guy by the spacing and I feel sympathy with him,” he confided to me with a sentimental smile.

Yet Peter’s biggest influence was the signwriter he was apprenticed to, Ted Ambridge. “My boss, he was the champion,” Peter assured me, “He had very good contacts in Watney Combe Reid and Truman’s and he got the contracts for most of the pubs in the East End. He did the Ten Bells in Commercial St, and we painted The Gun in Brushfield St together. He did the board telling the history of the pub and I did the generic figure work.”

Peter Hardwicke understands the culture of East End signwriting. Working placidly, he paints his lettering straight onto the frontage with a fluency that is his alone. It is a kind of magic. Everything fits, the balance and rhythm of the work is perfect – this is Peter’s gift. His work becomes part of the building, rather than merely sitting upon the front, it completes the structure and the shop frontage looks properly dressed to face the world. In streets like Columbia Rd, where Peter did almost all the shops, the effect is tangible – Peter’s work improves the street.

The vindication of Peter’s talent is that he is in greater demand than ever before. “I think people are bored with computer generated artwork,” he said as stood up to return to his work, “even my younger clients, they’d rather have it  done professionally than use stick on letters – it shows they’ve got taste.”

Below you can see a selection of Peter’s work in the vicinity and you can view his archive here.

Peter paints the “Spitalfields” font – perfect without guidelines or templates.

Peter Hardwicke at work in Crispin St.

Emin International, Crispin St

Treacle, Columbia Rd

The English Restaurant, Brushfield St

Laxeiro, Columbia Rd

Jones Dairy, Ezra St

The Painted Lady, Redchurch St

Columbia Pottery, Columbia Rd

Glitterati, Columbia Rd

Val’s Sandwich Bar, Columbia Rd

Angela Flanders, Columbia Rd

Labour & Wait, Redchurch St

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

You may like to read my original story Peter Hardwicke, Signwriter

and take a look at The Signs of Old London

18 Responses leave one →
  1. January 3, 2012

    His work is such a GIFT TO THE STREET…

    I hope he knows how much his work adds to the beauty and character of daily life in Spitalfields…how truly talented he is.

    cheers, DIANE
    http://www.thestylesaloniste.com/

  2. January 3, 2012

    It is wonderful to see such a skilled and sensitive approach – thank you for letting us know
    about Peter Hardwicke.

  3. January 3, 2012

    What a delightful read. It’s wonderful to see such talent and dedication still present in this instant world.

  4. Emma S permalink
    January 3, 2012

    Superb signwriting, absolutely top class. Great to see a master craftsman at work. Beautiful shop fronts too. Peter’s work compliments these lovely shops perfectly.

    Great article, thanks.

  5. Graham permalink
    January 3, 2012

    Great work it’s a shame that most of the shop fronts have a great metal security mask, some are lovely Georgian properties too. Mr. Hardwicke I hope your commissions continue in the future it’s beautiful to see the skill/art still alive.

  6. Annie permalink
    January 3, 2012

    On a filthy, cold and windy night, when I begin to question if what I do has any meaning and I read that Alesha Dixon is making the switch from Strictly to Britain’s Got Talent (sic)…it is a joy to know that there is a man out there with talent, brush and will who is making something pure and long-lasting. A good font is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

  7. January 4, 2012

    How lovely, thanks very much for this post – I’ve seen some of these in person and had no idea they were created by just one man and a brush!

  8. January 4, 2012

    I too am a signwriter for the past 26 years. Last work i did was mayoral board writing and i resored a 6′ diamater church clockface. I am deskbound nowadays but desperate to get back on the brushes. I love my trade and could also recognise other signwriters work back in the days; something impossible today with computer generated fonts.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. January 4, 2012

    What a great profession to support and keep alive. I’m trying to do my part, but Peter is “living” this long-lost profession using old-time skills and talents. Love them all, especially like the English Restaurant front … looks so welcoming, I want to go inside for a pint.

  10. January 4, 2012

    Love his work…a dying art for sure!

  11. January 5, 2012

    I love what this guy does! Thank you Peter, thank you Gentle Author!

  12. andrea permalink
    January 6, 2012

    Evidence of superb eye-hand coordination. It must be so satisfying to be that good at something, and to give visual pleasure to others.

  13. Blanka permalink
    January 7, 2012

    To all of the admirers of Pete’s work: check him out on YouTube. This video shows him paint a complete letter on Tracey Emin’s shopfront http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkDeN8o10FM&sns=em

  14. Johnny Hoxton permalink
    February 7, 2012

    Absolute gangster. Stuff of legend

  15. Rikki permalink
    October 17, 2012

    How nice to promote this kind of skill!

    We have a small job for Pete: small name board (smaller than A3) – no great artistic demand but attention to lettering and in the context of a specific tradition which is being overtaken by modern signs – on listed buildings! Literally just a handful of names on an existing white wood board, to update the board for new tenants. Near Strand/fleet st

    Can you pls ask him to email me asap?
    cheers

  16. Paul Johnson permalink
    October 8, 2013

    We need to have the gold lettering on the glass front door of a building re-written. Please let me know how I can contact Peter about this. Many thanks. Paul.

  17. October 9, 2013

    Hi Paul Johnson, do you have a number or email that I can contact you on? I am in touch with Peter Hardwicke and you can reach me on sam@ghostsigns.co.uk or 07989 409 046.

  18. bello olatunji permalink
    January 26, 2014

    Great job mr peter really prayin to be my mentor as a sign writer

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