Signs of the Time

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Are we not lucky here in Sherborne to have so many fine examples of the sign-writers art? Take a wander down Cheap Street and admire all those lovely wooden signs over the shop windows. Walk along Half Moon Street and around Trendle Street and you will see lots more, and not just over the shops and pubs but on many a wall you will find messages, reminders and proclamations. These signs add character and individuality to our town and they are just another example of something we pass everyday that enriches our daily lives probably without many of us realising it. Our town council continues to encourage wooden and hand-painted signs when shops change hands. But things are on the change. Although many of the boards hung above shop windows continue to be made of wood the names of the shops are often printed on a washable finish and then attached. Many look so good you cannot tell that they have not been painted by the hand of a traditional sign-writer. Several shop fronts were being repainted as I was preparing for this article and three times I asked if the painter at work was going to hand-paint the name back across the front and each time he said ‘no’. Two explained that they could still undertake this skilled work but that there was not a call for it anymore as it would take too long, plus the new replacement sign would be washable and would last much longer. I found an old directory for the town printed in 1963 and within its pages was a list of three local sign-writers offering their services.

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I took a walk down to South West Signs at the Old Yarn Mills in Westbury and a helpful man kindly gave me a few minutes of his time to explain how the industry has changed and he showed me examples of the backing boards on which almost anything could be printed to look any way anyone wanted using a clever computer programme. He regretted the passing of the hand-painting sign-writers and the skills that went with them but at the same time he was excited by clever surfaces that were being created and told me how signs for hospitals can now be printed onto surfaces using materials that will never harbour bacteria come what may. He also explained that a way has now been found to prevent road traffic signs turning ‘green’. So the signs over our shops and in our town are on the cusp. Will some still seek out a traditional sign-writer even though the signs may need repainting every ten years or so, or will technology be able to create something that fools everyone’s eye and retains the appeal that so suits our town?

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As postscript to this article one of the shop fronts being repainted at this time was the Abbey Bookshop and yesterday morning when I walked past the new sign had been put in place and it looks very smart indeed and so I went into the shop to congratulate Kevin. He explained that the artwork was created by an 18 year old straight out of sixth form college working for a sign-making company in Sturminster Newton where the sister shop has the same signage outside. So perhaps as one door begins to close on a traditional occupation another one opens offering opportunities for new skills to be developed in line with the changing times.

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Barbara Elsmore

8 October 2016

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5 Responses to Signs of the Time

  1. Barbara Adcock says:

    Fascinating observations, Barbara Elsmore! I’ll keep my own eyes open in my neck of the woods from now on. Barbara Adcock, Adelaide, South Australia.

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  2. Nigel says:

    Wonderful collection of signs, Barbara. Was vaguely aware of good signs in Sherborne but had no idea there were so many and it looks as though the digital sign really does encourage inventiveness and humour. Thanks for your musings.

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  3. Prevaricat says:

    I just love this sort of thing Barbara; sadly there’s little evidence of it in Cardiff as it is a relatively young city but my home town of Bath also has many ghosts of the past on it’s buildings as well as newer ‘retro’ designs. In fact I think that the well known local historians Kirsten Elliott & Andrew Swift are soon to publish a book on this very subject 🙂

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  4. Rachel says:

    Another excellent piece of investigative journalism from the pen (or finger) of Barbara Elsmore! These are just the sort of things we all take for granted and don’t miss until they have gone. You have taken a snap-shot in time and, as you say, some of the shop fronts have already changed since you took the photographs.

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  5. Jen says:

    I very much enjoyed seeing all of those delightful signs with unique fonts!

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