Ye Olde Sign Shoppe: George Biles, King of Signwriters

The diverse and prolific output of sign painter George Biles and his Bridport Signs Service Studios.

Black and white photo of an elderly man with a painter's palette standing in front of a 'Welcome to Bridport' sign.
Welcome to Bridport from Ken Allen's George Biles photo album.

If you can get to Bridport, Dorset, this August, then you are in for a very special treat. George Biles: King of Signwriters is a retrospective exhibition about this prolific local sign painter, including a significant portion of his work for the local Palmers Brewery.

The exhibition has been brought together by Jemma Thompson with support from Palmers Brewery, Bridport Town Council, and a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It is set across multiple sites and examines Biles' process in addition to numerous examples of his diverse output.

I have been keenly following developments, and was curious to learn more about Biles' life story, which has resulted in the following brief biography. After this is a reproduction of an article—'The Art of the Modern Signwriter'—that was published about Biles and his shop in 1932.

George Biles: King of Signwriters

Frederick George Eveleigh Biles was born on 1st July 1900. His father was Frederick Biles, a groom, and his mother was Susanna Jerred Eveleigh Biles. He was married in 1926 to Hilda May Kirk (latterly Hilda May Biles), and worked as a signwriter, pictorial artist, decorator, calligrapher and illuminator for his whole life.

Elderly man posing with a painter's palette in front of a 'Welcome to Bridport' sign that he's working on. The sign features a combination of lettering and pictorial elements, which includes the text 'Twinned with Sant Vaast-la-Hougue' and 'Please Drive Carefully'. The picture is of a queen on a throne in a flowing dress and gown, and arched windows behind with sea views. There are also two coats of arms flanking the main lettering at the top.
The picture is captioned: "Street Artist: Frederick George Biles who painted the Spirit of Bridport on to road signs." The 'Spirit of Bridport' is the woman in the centre of the sign, which is based on the original mural by Francis Newbery in Bridport Town Hall. Colin Granger, who was there when this photo and one above were taken, recalls that Biles hadn't painted the word 'to' when the photographer arrived. As a temporary solution, he simply stuck a piece of paper onto the board for the shoot.

Biles began his apprenticeship in 1914 at Barrett & Son, a firm of painters, glaziers, house decorators, carvers, gilders, and picture dealers. The firm was run by Frederick Barrett, and later his son Phillip Frederick Barrett, at 50 East Street in Bridport.

On the left is an advertisement set in a variety of typefaces, and which reads: "Barrett & Son, painters, glaziers, house decorators, carvers, gilders, & picture dealers. Oil paintings and prints cleaned and restored. East Street, Bridport". On the right is a section of a street directory showing various businesses beginning with the letter B, including "Barrett & Son, decorators, picture frame makers & gilders; estimates & design free, 50 East Street".
A 1889 advertisement for Barrett & Son, and their listing in the 1895 directory offering "estimates & designs free".

Biles continued to work with Barrett & Son until the 1920s, but by 1924 he was running a business in partnership with Albert Cast, whose family ran a well-established firm with two Bridport locations at 71 East Street and 20b Barrack Street. He went on to become the sole proprietor of the firm, presumably following Cast’s retirement, and the business was renamed Bridport Signs Service Studios.

Biles’ output involved a wide range of skills, from lettering to pictorial work to gilding, and his clientele came from far beyond Bridport itself. In addition to painting signs of all kinds, he turned his hand to murals, fine art painting, and theatre backdrops, including for pantomime.

The local Palmers Brewery were a client of Biles’ for most of his nearly 70-year career. He had other breweries on his books, but his work for Palmers is remarkable in that many of the swing signs he painted have been kept by the brewery. These include numerous examples of his propensity for painting different pictorials on each side, rather than replicating the same one.

A room with stone walls and wooden floor. Set on an easel in the foreground is a painted pub sign with the bottom third giving the name as "Three Mariners". The upper portion of this sign has a picture of two seated sailors by the sea smoling pipes while showing a model boat to a boy that is standing beside them. Behind this sign, which is propped up on an easel, are various other pub signs sitting against the stone wall, some stacked two or three deep.
Palmers Brewery pub signs painted by the late George Biles. Photo © JC & RH Palmer Ltd.

Some of Biles' other notable jobs included a large-scale painting of the inside of Noah’s Ark for a private client, and a portrait of Winston Churchill painted during the war to assist with fundraising during ‘Salute the Soldier Week’. The firm also produced a manuscript on vellum in 1953, which was presented to Princess Margaret on her visit to Bridport to mark 700 years since the granting of the town’s charter. This also included pictorial elements around the edges.

A sign painted on a wall advertising the Rawles butchers. A picture of a cow and a pastoral scene is in the middle, under the name, with lettering in two lines on the bottom that reads "purveyors of high quality meats".
This wall sign for the Rawles butchers was originally designed and painted by George Biles. It has since been repainted on at least two occasions, with this iteration signed Hartsigns and captured in 2008 by Keith Roberts. The business is still trading here at 38 East Street.

Biles employed two assistants in his studio, and trained them both. One of these, James (Jimmy) Hallett, left the firm after 46 years of service, and was still working as a sign painter on his own account when Biles died in December 1987.

A painted sign for the Royal Oak pub with the name in block letters along the bottom and a pictorial of an oak tree and a rural scene above that. The sign is propped up behind a work bench that is covered with rolls of paper and a variety of tools. Sunlight is streaming in through a window in the background.
This hand-painted sign for the Royal Oak was the last that Biles painted before he died in 1987. It was for Palmers Brewery, and is pictured here alongside rolls of drawings and patterns, and tools used by the in-house carpenter Andrew Samways, who was responsible for all the frames and fittings for Biles' signs. Photo © JC & RH Palmer Ltd.

Further Reading

  • The English Pub (1985) by Andy Whipple and Rob Anderson
  • Dorset Pubs and Breweries (2009) by Tim Edgell

The Art of the Modern Signwriter

This article appeared in Town and Country News on 8 July 1932. I have transcribed it for posterity.

Photo of an article in a magazine with the headline "The Art of the Modern Signwriter" and then a photo (described below) set within the main text.
The original presentation of the article in 1932.

Signwriting, paradoxically, derives from a period when the majority of people could not read. It was the prevailing illiteracy of the Middle Ages which led to the evolution of heraldry and of the pictorial signs which then hung not only outside inns but in front of every place where goods were sold. In course of time, as education spread, a legend added to the picture became more and more common, until to-day the pure notice-board type of signwriting is as much favoured as the pictorial variety.

Few people realise how much scope there is for the artist in this class of work. Some of the inn-signs, both ancient and modern, which are to be found up and down the country, are real works of art. There is evidence that this is a reviving craft, and it will be well for England if it is. More signs of the right type, replacing the ugly mass-produced varieties, would go far towards giving us a brighter town and country.

Recently we dropped into the studio of some well known West Country signwriters and decorators, Messrs. Cast and Biles, of 71 East Street, Bridport, in Dorset. Mr. F. G. Biles was apprenticed in 1914 and ten years later founded this business on his own account. There is a wide demand for his services all over the surrounding countryside and he covers, with the help of his assistants whom he has trained himself, a large area embracing Bournemouth, Honiton and Taunton. He contracts mainly to the trade.

Three people working at easels painting signs with a mixture of lettering and pictorial work. They are quite close together, and the crowdedness of the workshop setting is exemplified by the various pieces of finishing and work-in-progress signage that is propped up all around.
At work in the studio.

Inn-signs are a prominent feature of his work. These he paints to his own original designs, and some of them are strikingly beautiful. They suggest a return to the old tradition of fine inn-signs which were often painted by passing artists in lieu of payment for their entertainment. Not that the firm, of course, works on this somewhat unbusinesslike basis!

The firm undertakes a good deal of decorative work, and Mr. Biles is very clever in his treatment of churches, cafés and cinemas. At the moment he is engaged on a set of ten decorative panels for the Bridport Electric Palace which his firm has recently decorated. These panels show pastoral scenes painted in pastel shades and they give the place an air of luxurious restfulness.

Scenic painting is a speciality. In addition there is a great amount of the usual day-to-day work, such as lettering for motor-vans and the like. Some indication of the volume of work done is given by the face that last year Mr. Biles and his assistants used over 20,000 leaves of gold leaf for lettering alone. Even so, he never seems to get stale, and all his work has the authentic touch of the artist and craftsman, distinguishing it from anything cheap and shoddy.

George Biles: King of Signwriters

George Biles: King of Signwriters is showing in Bridport from 1–29 August.

Front and back of a flyer being used to promote the exhibition "George Biles: King of Signwriters".
Visit the Bridport Town Council website for full details of the exhibition.

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