Nick Garrett At The George
Nick Garrett signwriting upon The George
Behold the mighty George Tavern standing majestic in Stepney, as it has for centuries, presiding regally over the traffic along the main road to and from the City of London. From the medieval era, this ancient watering hole was known as the Halfway House and stood upon White Horse Lane that once ran along the back of the property but since 1802-6, when Commercial Rd was cut through on the other side of the building by the East India Company, it acquired the stucco frontage you see today and was renamed The George after George III, the monarch of the time.
For the past eleven years, the building has been undergoing renovation under the fond stewardship of Pauline Forster who has devoted herself to the care of this beloved East End landmark and, on Sunday, I went down to witness signwriter Nick Garrett apply the gold leaf upon the fascia as one of the finishing touches, completing the refurbishment of the exterior. The winter sunlight bathed The George in a warm glow as if to celebrate the restoration, illuminating the words ‘George Tavern’ in newly-applied gold leaf for the benefit of anyone travelling eastward down the Commercial Rd who might need a gentle reminder of this ideal spot for refreshment en route.
Yet when I arrived around three o’clock, the sunlight was already glimmering and the dark clouds gathering and Nick Garret had his work cut out to finish the job before daylight faded. “Every second counts in this job,” he reminded me, peering over his shoulder anxiously towards the setting sun, as I climbed upon the scaffolding to join him. With the confidence of a master, Nick was painting ‘Cask Ales’ freehand in size prior to applying the gold leaf and, in his absorption, he confided to me that it was a job which inevitably brought to mind his signwriting predecessor whose work he was replacing.
“For ten years, when I started as a signwriter, all I did was gilding pubs for Watneys and Taylor Walker. I remember the guy who did this lettering, the last time it was painted, about 1978. His lettering was eccentric, he was from the old school. We were being expected to paint commercial fonts then but he struggled with it, because his hands wanted to go another way, yet his lettering was really nice and his ‘S’s were distinctive – that’s what I recognise here.
My grandfather was my mentor, Francis Baker born in 1901. He was a lettercutter, the fourth generation of Francis Bakers of Fulham. They worked for Thorneycrofts, who made most of the statuary in central London, and they cut the lettering on the plinth of Boudicea on Westminster Bridge. He was a very old man when he used to come to my studio and he’d say, ‘Nick, that’s marvellous!’
I was so lucky with the Taylor Walker brewery because I just made a phone call one day and the chief surveyor answered. He said, ‘Come over and show me what you can do.’ So I went over there in my little minivan and came out with about ten years worth of work. In the eighties, we got hit by the wave of vinyl signs and I lost half my business, so I went into wood-graining and french-polishing just to make a living. But now designers are demanding signwriting and there’s a huge resurgence in the trade.
I live in Italy and come over for a couple of weeks at a time to get all the jobs done, and I teach youngsters who come to me to learn signwriting at workshops in Sydenham. It’s an interesting time now because there’s so many people wanting to learn the skills. There’s so much work – any job I can’t do, I pass to my students.”
By this point, Nick was pressing the squares of Italian gold leaf onto the newly-painted size that had just reached the necessary degree of tackiness, and the sun was setting in the sky and his freshly-gilded lettering was catching the first gleam of the street lights as they flickered on in Commercial St.
The stucco detail of ropework, egg and dart, and floral border has been recast from fragments
Nick Garrett paints freehand in size upon the fascia prior to application of the gold leaf
The George Tavern upon Commercial Rd in the early nineteenth century
You may like to read more about the history