The ‘Red List’ of Heritage Crafts

Lettering and sign crafts, some viable, some 'endangered', according to the Heritage Crafts Association.

The ‘Red List’ of Heritage Crafts
Eddy Artist.

Every year a list of the world’s endangered animals makes a splash across the mainstream press, reminding us of the momentum building towards a new era of mass extinctions. The IUCN Red List has now inspired a parallel endeavour from the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA). Their Red List details crafts that have become extinct in the UK, and those that are deemed ‘critically endangered’, ‘endangered’ and ‘currently viable’.

Since this article was published in 2019, the Heritage Crafts Association Red List has been developed and refined further. Visit their site to find the latest version.

The good news is that Signwriting in the UK is listed as currently viable, although apparently “most professional signwriters are either retired or dead”! It also states that the trade has “not trained anyone for about the last 40 years”. This fails to recognise those that came through the latter years of the City & Guilds qualifications (closed in the early-2000s) and those that have been fortunate to have an apprenticeship, whether formal or not, since 1979. However, the comments on current training opportunities in the UK largely hold true.

In contrast to Signwriting, the craft of Reverse Glass Sign Painting has been classified as critically endangered. This is described as “The making of signs by painting and applying metal leaf to the reverse of glass panes” which would be work that quite a number of people in the UK can, and do, currently undertake. However, this is then expanded in the detail of the listing to include a number of supplementary disciplines: Acid etching; Brilliant cutting; Silvering; Angel gilding; French embossing; and Verre églomisé.

David Smith is highlighted as the sole practitioner that has mastered all of the disciplines listed and he is profiled in the full report

David is also active in teaching the crafts to others, in the UK and abroad, which has allowed many of them to be carried forward. However, the report arrives at the conclusion that the craft is now only practiced in Devon, which is misleading.

Each of these techniques are still practiced commercially both individually and in combination by other craftspeople and firms elsewhere (e.g. Brilliant Signs, Aaron Stephens to name a couple, with more shown below). Current practitioners can, and do, subcontract for skills not currently possessed, which may more accurately reflect the division of labour that would have existed when this type of work was being produced in much higher volumes.