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At risk: the country pub sign

Friday 26 September 2008

In his younger days, our countryside commentator John Sheard spent a lot of time with art students, who often won their first ever commercial commission by painting a pub sign. It is a tradition at risk – but a bunch of enthusiasts have gathered to save the country inn sign for posterity

A SOMEWHAT sad report this week took my back to my adolescence, those balmy and barmy days when a night out meant a drive into the country to visit a traditional pub which sold real ale straight from wooded barrels and, as often as not, was also the centre of a working farm.

We called them “kitchen houses” because you often took your pint a room which doubled as the farm’s parlour and the ale came in enamel jugs drawn from barrels in the kitchen next door. They were the surviving, living remnants of a rural tradition going back centuries, when the village inn was not only the centre of local social life but also a haven for passing travellers, some welcome, some not so.

British Pub Signs
Pub Signs
Photo: Inn Sign Society

There were sometimes ancient price lists on the wall, burned by hot poker point into varnished wood, saying bed, supper and breakfast 9d; tinkers in barn, 3d (that’s roughly 4p and less than 2p in today’s money). Even then, most had given up providing bed (or straw) and breakfast – the motor car had done for that trade – but the atmosphere still lingered.

In those days, a number of my young friends were art students and several of them won their first ever commercial commissions by painting signs for the pubs we frequented. A pub then was a good solid business, either a free-house owned outright by the farmer, or run by a tenant to the local landowner.

These innkeepers were proud and competitive, so if one got a posh new sign, the others a few miles down the road would follow suit. In other words, this could be very lucrative business for an impecunious student - although few realised at the time that they were taking forward an art form going back to the Wars of the Roses.

Many pub names like the White Hart and the Boar’s Head were linked to battling families in those wars and the pub sign continued to record British history as it unfolded: the Royal Oak celebrates the tree that King Charles hid in, for instance. And the names of the great landed families have been celebrated for generations: there must be scores, if not hundreds, of Devonshire Arms throughout the country. Who knows how many Princes of Wales there are, or monuments to heroes like Lord Nelson?

What brought all these memories flooding back this week was a sad survey by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings lamenting the fact that the art of pub sign painting was dying out. One reason, as I have reported before, is that pubs are closing in their hundreds: some 57 shut their doors every month, according to the Campaign for Real Ale.

But perhaps the worse influence, alleged the ancient buildings society, was the growth of huge pub chains like JD Wetherspoons, which own hundreds of outlets and have their signs mass produced instead of hand painted by local artists. So, after centuries, this poignant and important folk art is going to the dogs.

Many pub names like the White Hart and the Boar’s Head were linked to battling

At a time when a British artist can raise tens of millions of dollars by selling stuffed animals preserved in chemicals to crazy Americans, I find this profoundly depressing: the English country pub is facing all sorts of threats as it is without taking away its unique and often lovely advertising. It is yet another rich thread being stripped from the tapestry of the English countryside.

But, as always, whenever something traditionally English is under threat, up comes some wonderful, idiosyncratic body to protect it: welcome to the Inn Sign Society, formed ten years ago and now having 400 members dedicated to preserving this unique art form.

It explains the history of many of our better known pub signs and also illustrates some of the newer ones, like The Cavern pub in Liverpool near the cellar where the Beatles first performed. This is a site almost as refreshing as a pint of good ale and I wish the society a long and happy future in recording so much of our past. Cheers!

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