Sunday, 14 December 2008

Picture This

Sign Of The Times Calling
By Mark Cantrell

BEFORE the days of carefully manipulated corporate branding, there was feudal heraldry, and out of this era and ethos evolved an art-form all of its own.

This was a more down-to-earth visual aesthetic fit to slake a good thirst – they were the signs that said ‘here be ale’. Welcome to the pub, in other words.

The traditional English pub sign has emerged as the top “icon of England” in a poll conducted for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). Yet at a time when such individualised signage is recognised as quintessentially English, the CPRE fears that they are on the verge of extinction as independent pubs close down, or old fashioned pubs receive a ‘modern’ makeover by new corporate chain bar owners.

Pictorial pub signs go all the way back to the 14th Century, when a Royal Act in 1393 made it compulsory for inns to have signs. This was so that official ale tasters and the mainly illiterate population could identify them. In a sense, then, they represent some of the earliest forms of marketing.

Ever since, these dedicated forms of custom-art have been enticing drinkers to pop in for a quick pint – or three. Nor are they just a rural phenomenon, many an urban pub clings to the traditional calling card, even if in the towns and cities the pressure to go corporate is even more intense.

“[Pub signs] are as characteristic of rural England as church spires and ancient hedgerows. The diversity of English life has been reflected in these intriguing and deceptively informative artefacts for centuries,” said Bill Bryson, author and president of the CPRE.

“Only around 30 independent pub chains and breweries in Britain are still ordering individually painted signs. Amazingly, a few of these fine artists are still working and there are some notable examples such as the St Austell Brewery in Cornwall that still employ sign writers. But it is a shrinking market and the dominance of a few chains has contributed to the disappearance of traditional British pub names, and led to a profusion of bland corporate makeovers.”

It is estimated that around 36 pubs are closing their doors every week. John Howard, speaking for CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) said: “With the latest research suggesting one in eight pubs will be calling last orders by 2012, people in the business will welcome this public support for their trade.”

The support in question is the result of the vote in the public poll that shot good old-fashioned pub signs to the top slot as visual symbols of the country. The second slot went to red post boxes ,while coming in third position was canal boating. Though the angle of the poll was themed very much towards the countryside, some of the nominations for the poll apply to an urban setting too.

Actor Kevin Spacey nominated canal boating, an activity which is growing in popularity as a holiday activity. Partly this is a result of a resurgence in boating brought about by an interest in heritage, but also the resurrection of the canals as water features as part of the regeneration of Britain’s towns and cities.

Pub signs were nominated by author Sebastian Faulks. Other nominations for iconic aspects of England included corner shops, nominated by poet Daljit Nagra; stiles by author David Lodge; post boxes by writer and photographer Peter Ashley; crags by actor and television presenter Michael Palin; the Malvern Hills by poet and musician Benjamin Zephaniah; and bonfires by journalist and presenter Tom Heap.

In all, there were 25 nominations by journalists, actors, authors, photographers and filmmakers. They were selected from the hardback book ‘Icons of England’ (ISBN: 978-1845250546. RRP: £20), a photographic homage to England’s countryside and its historic monuments, published in September by the CPRE in association with Think Books and Pan Macmillan. The nominations were then subject to a vote in the poll of just over 1,000 people, with the pub signs coming top of the poll.

“People who think of England as a practical country with little flair for the visual would never have imagined that its lanes and roads would be regularly punctuated by what look like cards from a wooden tarot pack – optical extravagances, creakily offering delight, escape and risk,” said Sebastian Faulks. “But it is so; and sometimes we hardly see the strangest things by which we are surrounded.”

Bryson added: “I’m delighted pub signs won the icons vote, and of course there is no better place to celebrate this result than inside an equally iconic British pub.”

Indeed. So, stuff the fancy wine bar – mine’s a pint of real ale!


Mark Cantrell,
14 December 2008

Copyright © December 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Category: FEATURE


Pub signs are a pictorial record of our history - from Roman times, through the Crusades and the Dissolution of the monasteries to the present day. They've been inspired by religion, royalty, lust, pride, murder, heroes and scandals and, together, they’re an often disregarded historical resource. Their disappearance from the High Street is almost like someone emptying the National Gallery. Let’s hope that these traditional pub signs can be preserved and appreciated for a long while yet

Elaine Saunders

Author: A Book About Pub Names
Complete Text
It’s A Book About….blog

Your topics are interesting. Nice work.


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