Published on March 4, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
They said signwriting was dead – but one young man refused to listen, as Alastair Gilmour discovers
He works with sheets of gold every day, then when he’s finished, he collects all the spare bits and bins them. Ashley Willerton is a signwriter, a multi-disciplined designer who turned his back on web design to immerse himself in the centuries-old craft. And, much of his work is using gold leaf.
In fact, when he first started out as a signwriter, he prepared a small mirror using gold leaf on its swooping, swirling lettering to take around prospective clients as a sample of his skills. It reads: “Purveyors of the finest ales and beers” and could be mistaken for a Victorian-era creation. But Ashley has never actually had to take it out from under his arm – his reputation has invariably arrived at the doorstep well before it can be flourished.
“Gold leaf produces an effect you just can’t get from vinyl,” says Ashley. “People are entranced; you stop in your tracks and it makes you a bit more inquisitive. Some people will go through their lives not knowing such a thing exists.
“I use 24-carat gold leaf, the best quality I can get. It costs £30 for a book of 25 sheets, so when you’re doing something big you go through a lot. Then you rub off the excess with distilled water and gelatin. They’re tiny and not worth saving, though some people do. Life’s too short.”
Ashley’s bespoke hand lettering and signwriting work can be found across the UK with clients ranging from small Newcastle bistros to Fortnum & Mason and The Independent in London. He has also left his creative mark on businesses in and around Newcastle in diverse situations such as The Little Fishy, Colonel Porter’s Emporium, Quilliam Brothers Teahouse, The Kiln, the Tyne Bar, and the newly-refurbished Town Wall pub.
One of his first commissions was for Quilliam Brothers Teahouse at the Haymarket in Newcastle. He turned it down at first.
He says: “I’ve been full-time now for just over four years. I quit my job at the end of 2014 not really wanting to be a signwriter, but initially to get me more into commercial lettering. I needed two months to build up a portfolio.
“I had previously done a blackboard for Quilliam Brothers. A year later, Tom Quilliam got back to me asking would I consider doing the full sig on the buildingn. I thought, fuck that, that building is amazing and there’s no way my first job can be put there, it would be a disaster. I said thanks but it’s too scary a project but he asked me to reconsider. Then I said I’d give it a go as they were taking a punt on me.
“I did it while the whole place was being refurbished. I thought, ‘Wow, three weeks ago I was at a computer all day working for clients now someone’s taken a chance on me. Right there and then I thought this is what I want to do. It was the last client I’ve had to approach, now they come to me.
“I really do just love those boards, and I love the building that they’re on. It’s one of the proudest things I’ve ever done. The fact that it could be there for years, the permanence of it, is very different from web design. It means a lot more when I’m working for people who care about the craft as well.”
The largest project Ashley has worked on was The Distillery in London, a four-storey hotel dedicated to all things gin. It’s a working distillery with two bars, private dining and three guest lodgings.
“It’s the world’s first gin hotel,” he says. “The commission measured eight metres by two, working on five levels of scaffolding. It was a fun one to do, but terrifying as well.
“People put a great importance on large-scale stuff, but they don’t appreciate the journey it has taken to get to that point. There’s no magic, everything is methodical. I started by doing small-scale drawings using traditional methods, tracing down all the lettering.”
People passing regularly on the bus would check Ashley’s progress. “They liked to see something being done by a human; it resonates more than something that’s just stuck up.
“I was always interested in typography and saw an article in a graphics magazine about a lettering artist where everything was freehand. I’d never seen that job description before. A typographer will design a whole alphabet, but I thought I could be more creative as a lettering artist. When you specialise in something, people have a trust in you.”
Cynics often say signwriting is dead, nobody wants it any more and you can’t make a living out of it. But Ashley had passion and self-belief and never even thought of it as how much money he could make, viewing it as complementary to the commercial lettering he was already involved in.
He says: “Most of my work comes from commercial lettering but when people want me to paint a sign, like Quilliam Brothers or The Kiln in Ouseburn, it’s amazing the knock-on effect from the location plus the popularity of the place, especially in a small place like Newcastle with all its quirky independents. Your name quickly gets circulated. I was doing a job at Backyard Bikes beside By The River Brew Co in Gateshead when Rob Cameron saw my work. (Rob is a director with Dave Stone in the development there and also Wylam Brewery and the Bridge Tavern and Town Wall pubs.) We got chatting about the refurbishment that was going on at the Town Wall and he asked me if there was anything I wanted to do for them.
“I said I’d wanted to do a pub mirror for ages and he said ‘OK’. I showed them my proposed design and they didn’t see the need to change anything. I did it in burnished gold which was a great opportunity to try out the technique.
“I’ve got commissions right up to June. Everyday time scales are not a priority, but what I do is very much weather dependent. The beauty is in trying a new technique, a style, experimenting; there’s not a piece of software able to do that. Each job presents a totally new challenge and each job throws up something you didn’t even consider – the space you’re in, level of intricacy, different types of brushes and the materials you’ll need. But as soon as you take the drawings onto site it’s totally different, it’s awesome, it’s a humbling job.”
Ashley Willerton knows his pure sable-hair brushes intimately and as they all have their own quirks it’s tempting to believe he regards them as having human characteristics.
“Looked after, cleaned properly, brushes will last a lifetime,” he says. “Long after I’m gone.”
And, is there anything he’s yearning to get his teeth into, something that he can look back on with even greater pride?
He hmms and aahs a little: “I’d love to do a whisky bottle.”