The ‘Red List’ of Heritage Crafts
Lettering and sign crafts, some viable, some 'endangered', according to the Heritage Crafts Association.
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’.
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.
Some of the techniques (e.g. Brilliant Cutting and Silvering) would be better classified as decorative glass techniques, rather than under Reverse Glass Sign Painting, and there are firms such as Stuart Norton Glass, Neros, Ellision Art Glass and James Witchell that specialise in this type of work.
Other related crafts that feature include: Calligraphy (currently viable); Gilding (endangered); Illumination (endangered); Letter Cutting (endangered); Marbling (endangered); Neon Bending (endangered). Omitted are Graining (related to Marbling), Screen Printing, and Fairground Art (mentioned in passing as a sub-craft to signwriting) which would all be worthy of research, classification and inclusion.
The HCA refers to their Red List as “an ongoing piece of research” and that they are “always looking for contributions relating to accuracy improvement and real-world change”. I think that as a trade we should all make a contribution to this with a view to improving the data used in the research to date. I would encourage you to email the HCA with your input. including notes of your own practice, and that of others you know, especially relating to those disciplines details above.