Messy Histories: On Pub Signs

The tradition of pub signs goes back – like so much British culture does – to the Romans. Along with straight-ish roads, underfloor heating and mosaics, they also brought with them the habit of hanging plants outside places where alcohol was served. Britain didn’t quite have the climate for the vines used for the purposes in Rome, so bushes and mixing sticks were used instead.

A pub sign reading "The Three Bellends" with Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings each with a bell on their head.
Pub sign, 2020, New Brighton

Whilst I’m sure the greenery brightened up the urban space, the actual purpose of these signs is as a substitute for written language. This worked not just for the Roman colonisers, who were already a diverse group with varied rates of literacy, but also – though perhaps accidentally – worked well for their general* colonial strategy of borrowing & sharing culture. As a rule, the Roman Empire grew, by keeping local populations onside. Visual signs could be quickly learned by most people, and standardised across large colonial areas fairly swiftly.

It’s a tradition which sticks. Pubs starting being given individual names around the 12th century, and in 1393 it becomes law in England for a pub to hang a sign outside. It’s the signs, as much as if not more than the pubs themselves, which become important marking points for travellers, pilgrims and local communities. The pub, as we recognise it as part of the fabric of British life, comes with its own piece of art.

But what’s so particularly interesting about it that I should pay more attention to what’s outside the building than what’s in? Looking into the story of British (mostly English) pub signs, two questions keep coming up which I think are worth looking into.

Pub signs may be ubiquitous in the UK, but we rarely talk about them as art. In part this is down to the relationship we have in the UK with folk art, or “popular” art, which has long and widely been regarded as nothing more than oddities, certainly not work which demonstrates any skill. Perhaps blame capitalism: it’s thought that the intensity of farming methods meant there was less time to spend on “folk” craft tradition, such as decorative embroidery, of the kind found widely in Europe and even America. As a folk-art form pub signs have both the two common issues of no named artist and ubiquity, but also: they’re functional. Unlike even other folk arts, they serve a purpose – identifying a pub. Beyond that, who cares if they’re good art?

a black and white etching of a street cornet with lots of people sitting in the street, chatting, eating. A man is painting a pub sign on a pole.
An etching by Hogarth, 1751

But it might surprise you to learn that this question of whether pub signs can be considered art isn’t a new one. In 1762 a journalist called Bonnell Thornton held an event which has become known as The Sign Painters’ Exhibition. Thornton and his group collected a range of pub signs, created a catalogue and charged entry to their exhibition. It went surprisingly well.

Their reasons for holding this exhibition weren’t quite to celebrate an art form they saw as underrated, however; it was intended as a satire of the emerging art establishment. The Sign Painters’ Exhibition was held at the same time as two major London exhibitions, which were taking off as a format at just about this time. Thornton and his circle (which included Hogarth, who might have painted a couple of signs especially for the show) saw exhibitions as representing the admiration of a very particular value set: that art should be for the connoisseur, that only a particular taste was acceptable. One of the other shows was rumoured to be turning away some visitors in order to attract those of “discriminating taste”.

Though their reasons may not have been to celebrate pub signs per se, it’s interesting that this is the art form they chose. It reflects the depth of the distinction I mentioned earlier that we make – certainly in this country, at least – between Art (with a deliberate capital A) and other visual material. It has a kind of Duchamp-esque take of signs, that they’re Art because they say they are. The Sign Painters’ Exhibition was a joke, but also one which called out the idea of placing Art on a separate plane to the rest of visual culture.

To recap what visual culture means, here’s a definition from Brown University:

…it is intertwined with everything that one sees in his day to day life…anything within our culture that communicates through visual means. When looking at visual culture, one must focus on production, reception, and intention, as well as economical, social, and ideological aspects. It reflects the culture of the work and analyzes how the visual aspect affected it. It focuses on questions of the visible object and the viewer – how sight, knowledge and power all are related. Visual culture analyzes the act of seeing as ‘tension between the external object and the internal thought processes’.

In other words, how visual cues confirm or affect our understanding of the world.

As well as being of interest to my first question about the difference between Art and other visual aspects of the world, visual culture is the backbone of my second question. If pub signs don’t belong in art, they definitely have a place in understanding visual culture. After all as I said before, their whole point is to be a sign in which we recognise a specific meaning: BEER HERE!

There’s a quirk I find interesting in the discourse about pub signs, though. When people talk about pub signs, they like to talk about the meaning of what each sign represents. We’ve all heard “did you know that the Cross Keys/ White Hart/ Red Lion is a symbol of….” at some point. And just as quickly forgotten it, or maybe stored it as a bit of trivia. But the way knowledge is transferred like a bit of lost lore, known only to those who know – carries with it a suggestion that these meanings may once have been much more significant to people. It might even come with the idea that a pub sign could be a symbol which attracted people not just for drink, but for a set of values. Which would make it all the more significant how many signs relate to power structures like royalty and religion: drinking in the pub equals showing fealty. If you think this sounds far-fetched, new pubs largely stopped being named things like the Cross Keys after the Reformation.

a pub sign of the Prancing Pony inn, a green background with a white horse on it. From Lord Of The Rings.
Pub sign, circa 3018 of the Third Age

So no doubt this is true to some extent – but when, and to whom? This implies that the visual language of the past was both deep and commonly understood. and by that I mean widely in society, not just the people creating art. And it’s incredibly difficult to know how true that is. The language of symbols in European art, which has evolved since the middle Ages, is certainly richly complex. It would have been seen by people in churches on a weekly basis, and literacy was generally improving. But the vast majority of surviving written sources we have are from deliberate discourse about artists and/or symbols, not from the general populace of late Medieval/ early Renaissance England.

There may also be differences between the urban and rural conversation. Perhaps in villages and small towns, local history and stories stayed long in people’s memories and self-identity regarding place. But in large towns and cities, descriptions of pub culture in the 16th to 18th centuries sound like signs were employed as marketing as we recognise it today. The descriptions of how out-of-hand the situation with pub signs got make it pretty fun to envisage. Every pub had a sign hanging out over the street; every landlord wanted his sign more visible than the others. They got bigger and stuck out further. They made streets harder to pass through, darker (as they blocked light), and even when they fell on passers-by – lethal.

This doesn’t sound like a place in which customers are choosing a pub for the allegiances its sign represents. Everyone’s striving to be the biggest and the best – might we say ‘flashiest’? And in this case, might the quality of the artwork have had a part to play in attracting customers?

The significance of pub signs tends to get left to enthusiasts and historians, rather than Art History. And between the current crisis leaving the fate of many pubs in the balance, and the decline of pubs/ dominance of Spoons which was already happening, maybe that’s where they belong. If we’re thinking about what visual culture is relevant to the way we understand the world now, the pub sign isn’t particularly pressing.

But there’s still something instructive here. Pub signs have occupied a whole host of purposes: to be universal, then specific, then to sell a commodity. Rather than being static pieces of tradition, they show how visual cues can be utilised into society’s varied intentions. Right now I’d say a pub sign is a symbol we can’t wait to embrace again. Meet you there?

This topic was suggested by Paul Bailey. Got a suggestion for an artistic subject you’d like to see written about? Head to the Contact page to drop me a message or find me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

*though hugely simplified here!

Featured Image: The Spread Eagle, Thame, Oxfordshire, dating from circa 1740.

All sources cited here

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