Grierson Gower's Treasure Trove of Antique and Vintage Signs

A look inside the home of Grierson Gower, and his vast collection of antique and vintage signs.

Various signs on display near the top of a bookshelf.
Antique and vintage signs from floor to ceiling at the home of Grierson Gower.

It was perhaps fate that design, paint, and gold leaf would come to feature prominently in Grierson Gower's life and work: his father was a designer, painter and sculptor, and his grandfather a designer and decorative gilder specialising in churches. His father was working at the Festival of Britain where, as a seven-year-old, Grierson first encountered signwriters and signwritten work. It was an experience that made a lasting impression on the young boy.

With the exception of archival images, the photography for this piece was kindly taken by Tobias Newbigin (@tobiasnewbigin) on a visit to Grierson Gower's home.

An Artistic Calling

Grierson was born in Blackpool in 1944, one of many 'evacuee embryos' resulting from pregnant women being taken away from London during the second world war. After spending his early years in London, his family moved to Surrey to be closer to his boarding school. From there he attended art college in Guildford, and then Swansea where his mother had relocated after divorcing his father.

He studied painting, and did some signwriting work on the side while still a student. He also had a line in buying Welsh furniture and taking it to London to sell at a profit. These two 'side hustles' would later form the basis for Grierson's working life.

Enter Relic Designs

After graduating, Grierson spent a short time teaching. He then started work as a graphic designer in 1965, earning £5 ($6) per week while living in a basement flat on Wimpole Street in central London. In 1969, he founded Relic Designs, working as a glass etcher and signwriter in St Pancras, London. This was in partnership with Malcolm Gliksten who ran the commercial side of things. Together they found a niche in screen printing and the production of retro mirror and glass signs.

Grierson Gower in the 1970s outside his railway arch in London's St Pancras with a retro sign produced for an American client.

Grierson was, and remains, keenly interested in the history of the sign industry. At the request of clients, he would sometimes sign works with 'decoy' signatures to add to their supposed authenticity. He had a varied and international clientele, which included John Wayne among them.

Drawing for a Deane & Adams sign.
Scale drawing for a faux fascia sign with notes and workings-out in the margins. The design is based on genuine artwork for the former Deane & Adams gun manufacturing business.
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In addition to creating original works for sale, Relic Designs also dealt in antique and vintage signs. They gained a reputation, and people often brought stuff to them direct. They would also trawl London's streets using an A to Z street map book to salvage relics from pubs, butchers, and other locations. This was in the late-1960s, and Grierson still has signs collected from this time in his personal collection.

Going, Going, Gone!

By the early 1970s the antique dealing side of the business had grown to such an extent that they bought a farm in Wiltshire to run their annual auctions of fairground art, vintage and antique signs.

In 1979 Grierson relocated from London to a small village in Somerset, at which point he stopped the glass etching and mirror production side of things. He later partly returned to this in the early 2010s, providing designs for his daughter-in-law to produce. She also works on restorations, including brilliant-cut mirrors.

Framed gilded and painted glass piece.
"Finest Irish Whiskey" designed by Grierson Gower and produced by his daughter-in-law.

Grierson is now retired, but still occasionally sells items from his personal treasure trove, a tiny fraction of which he has kindly allowed me to share here.

Cork Steam Machinery

"Specimens of Cork Cut by Steam Machinery and Illustrations of its Application to the Manufacture of Hats"
Reverse-glass gilded piece produced for the 1851 Grand Exhibition at London's Crystal Palace. It was an explanatory panel about a piece of machinery, and was used at the exhibition for less than six months.

Signwriters' Sample Tablet

Ornate gilded and painted glass panel.
This signwriters' sample tablet is likely from London in the 1880s and would have been used as a sales aid. It is now owned by Ash Bishop and his Brilliant Sign Co.

Brilliant Signs Kit Box

After the breakup of the original Brilliant Sign Co. in the 1970s, lots of the firm's assets were skipped. Some went to Dodo Antiques, including hardwood moulds for their eponymous brilliant letters. London signwriter John Pelham also managed to salvage various items, recognising their historic value.  

Wooden box with compartments and drawers.
Signwriter's kit salvaged from the breakup of the Brilliant Sign Co.

Parnall's Tea Bins

Wooden containers with number 12 and 15 on them.
These tea bins were manufactured by Parnall's in Bristol and would have been part of a much larger set used to store goods in a shop. They have mahogany tops in addition to their ornate gilded and painted numbers.

Le Peintre d'Enseignes

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Richard Newell

Wooden panel with gilded lettering.
This panel from the 1890s was fixed to the back of a handcart and advertised the Welsh butcher Richard Newell. He held a royal warrant to supply meat to Queen Victoria and the central coat of arms is made of repoussé brass which was then painted.

Physical Letters

Superior Home-Made Sausages

Glass panel with prices for beef and pork.
This was one of three highly decorative gilded glass panels that once adorned a butchers shop in London. The border is in the style of the Trenner workshop which specialised in this kind of work and supplied mirrors to breweries including Bass and Truman's.

J.H. Butcher & Co.

In addition to the signs themselves, Grierson also has a collection of manufacturer catalogues and other marketing materials.

Old George from Deptford

"Flash Glass"

Noah's Ark Toy Warehouse

Thank you to Grierson Gower for sharing his story and collection, and to Tobias Newbigin (@tobiasnewbigin) for visiting and capturing the photos used here.

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