Meet the only freehand signwriter in London

by VERONIKA LUKASHEVICH

It’s a sign of the times that there’s only one artist left in town producing London’s lettering by hand.

Peter Hardwicke is the city’s last signwriter to master the craft without using printed templates.

Instead, he sketches rough guides for his outlines before painting the letters.

He’s part of a rich tradition of signwriting in the capital.

In recent years “ghost signs”, the fading remains of advertisements painted on the capital’s buildings, have become niche attractions throughout the city.

Some of the signs are almost 100 years old.

SONY DSC

In 2016 an app for visiting these sites was launched. Last month a new tour was added which allows visitors to follow their traces around Stoke Newington.

Through Hardwicke, 50, and his traditional methods, the craft behind these fading signs still endures today.

“I was trained that way,” he said. “Traditional is considerably more rewarding and I think my clients appreciate it too because it looks more organic and less sterile.”

With just a paintbrush and a mahlstick, which keeps his hand balanced and away from the wet paint, he transforms his clients’ ideas into reality.

“When I first met Peter, I saw him standing on a ladder doing lettering for a shop,” said Peter Alexander, owner of Reindeer Antiques in Kensington and one of Hardwicke’s clients.

“I was impressed with his ability to work freehand, so I commissioned him to do the signwriting for my shop. He knew how to tweak and simplify the font so it looks clean and unfussy.”

Hardwicke’s work can be found all over the capital with more than 5,000 signs created by him appearing throughout London – including shop fronts, bars, boats, churches and trains.

He started his career when he walked into a job with Ambridge Signs without any formal training in 1984 at the age of 16.

SONY DSC

Hardwicke stayed at the company for 10 years but eventually decided to go solo to avoid a repetitive working pace. He doesn’t like following others’ guidelines and enjoys having complete creative control.

 “I wanted to design original fonts and give input to my client’s ideas,” he said. “Working outside and to my own pace, is far more fulfilling and relaxing.”

The soothing nature of signwriting is one of the perks that keeps his mind focussed, but Hardwicke has also found himself in situations that have taken him by surprise.

Once while signwriting for a client at a dry cleaners in Marylebone he got locked in the basement for an entire weekend.

“I was washing [my] hands downstairs and the dry cleaner had just ‘assumed’ that I was gone,” he said. “My phone had no signal, and there were bars on the windows.”

Luckily the basement had a tap and a toilet. “Can you imagine what would have happened if not?” he asked.

Another time, he worked in an antique shop when he accidentally shattered a century-old vase, which had been destined for California.

The owners of the shop accused him of destroying an item worth £30,000, an experience that made him “feel physically sick until they said that it was all just a joke.”

Despite the occasional craziness that comes with his job, Hardwicke finds fulfilment in its spontaneity and simplicity. With just a toolbox and an open mind he adjusts to his clients’ ideas, without sacrificing the aesthetic appeal of the area.

It is important to stay sympathetic to the environment and to ensure that the font matches the architecture of the buildings. “Research is key,” he said.

SONY DSC

All photos by Veronika Lukashevich