Signs of the times

Categories: News and previews

As the London Design Festival arrives at Borough Market, graphic designer and blogger Natasha Nuttall celebrates the art of signwriting

Words & images: Natasha Nuttall

In a digital age it makes a refreshing change from the daily norm, but for centuries signwriting was just a part of market life. Although you might not realise, signage is an important part of Borough Market’s shopping experience, culture and history.

Carved into stone, hand painted or chalked onto blackboard, perfecting letterforms on signage is a skill that typographers were working on long before the invention of computers. But why not just print it out from the computer? Spending hours crafting a sign might seem like an odd concept to some, but they are pieces of art in their own way.

Hand lettered words have a charm—a personality, human touch and connection—and luckily there are still people keeping this intricate craft alive. As part of London Design Festival 2016, hand lettering expert Mike Meyer is hosting sold out workshops where keen typographers can learn and practice the art of lettering. But if the hands-on approach is not really your thing, don’t worry, because there are plenty of other ways for you to appreciate Borough Market’s typographic history.

Sign at Borough Market

Look up!
When visiting, your senses are completely overloaded—the buzz of the crowds, the smells, the tastes, and also plenty to feast your eyes on. We might lead busy lives, often viewing the world through a phone or camera screen, but look around you—look up!

Why does signwriting exist? For communication—people had something to share, shout about or advertise. More commonly known as ghost signs, these could be instructional or educational, while still eye catching. As the oldest food and drink market in the UK, you can imagine that Borough Market has a few stories to tell and they’re waiting to be discovered, just a few feet above your head.

Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s—it’s all in the details. The decorative nature of signwriting adds interest and helps a message stand out from the crowd. The Lee Brothers potato merchant sign on Bedale Street and the notice from 1908 sending a warning to loiterers at the Borough High Street gates exist as evidence of times that we might have moved on from, but will never forget. Have you ever noticed “A Schedule of the Rents”, a very large and detailed board keeping watch over the market traders and visitors in Middle Road? Once you spot it you will wonder how you ever missed it before!

Sign at Borough Market

A colourful reminder
There are also a few details hidden from public view, including beautiful gold lettering running around the walls of the trustees’ boardroom which lists every chairperson since 1756 and a more colourful reminder to “Make sure door is locked before leaving. Burglars!”

As well as the Market’s history and character, you’ll also encounter more modern messages of encouragement: “Don’t be shy... give my cheese a try” from The French Comte and an invitation from the truffles at Tartufaia, “Smell me.”

Signwriting might be a tradition from the past, but traders are keeping with the times. If you look closely it’s possible to find blackboards discussing current affairs and an emoji of sorts: a little pig illustration, smiling back at you from Hog Roast in the Green Market.

So on your next visit, be sure to pause your text messages and instead search for the Market’s concealed messages. What stories will you discover?