Peter Hardwicke, Signwriter (Part Two)
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