When I attended ATypI 2010 “The Word” in Dublin the conference closed with one of the fabulous lettering walks hosted by Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon. It was abundantly clear to the participants that the Irish capital has a rich history of hand painted signs decorating the city. The documentary short Gentlemen of Letters – A Dublin Sign Painting Film by videographer and editor Colin Brady examines this craft that – although it is not as common today – still survives.
The documentary opens with Colm O’Connor, a City & Guilds qualified sign writer working on a sign for a coffee shop and then follows a couple of sign writers and artists. The mysterious Maser who produces large-scale lettering art with a message, something between sign painting and graffiti, identifies Kevin Freeney (1919-1986) as a seminal influence. Nicknamed A Gentleman of Letters, Freeney had an enormous visual impact on the city.
Sign writing goes back at least three generations in [Kevin Freeney’s] family. Back in the 1930s he rambled through Dublin’s streets on a bike or with a pushcart carrying his paints and brushes. In that period the city’s streetscapes were elegantly embroidered with handwritten shop and pub fascias. Having done ‘at least 700 pubs and shopfronts’ in Dublin, the most famed streets – O’Connell, Henry, Grafton, and Capel – all carried his personalised three-dimensional relief lettering and ornamentation. His fellow craftsmen hailed him as a “Master”.
Kevin C. Kearns – Dublin Street Life & Lore
Last year Freeney’s family posted a delightful collection of photographs of his work on Flickr. His sons Paul and Kevin Jr. keep their father’s legacy alive. Kevin Jr. became a sign writer himself, and runs a series of classes in his Wexford studio. It is artist and graphic designer James Early who beautifully sums up the appeal of sign lettering – you feel the human quality, either subconsciously or consciously, that is present in hand-painted signs. Even though vinyl lettering is cheaper and faster, it hasn’t got the same charm and enduring quality. Fortunately some shop owners still care. The story of Dublin butcher and steak house F.X.Buckley is a lovely example. Appalled by its horrible plastic sign, the shop owner hired Colm O’Connor, giving the sign painter a historic photograph as a guide to help him restore the shop to its former glory. Let’s hope enough people keep acknowledging the importance of the lettering heritage in cities and help preserve this beautiful tradition.