In an age of mass-produced goods and digital media, Huddersfield artist Robert Walker is reviving the painstaking art of Victorian hand-crafted ornamental glass sign making.
He’s so committed to the heritage craft that last year he gave up his full-time job as a senior lecturer in graphic design in order to focus on his new-found passion.
A single piece can take him several days to complete and involves a range of skills that few in the North of England have mastered. The resulting glass signs and mirrors are exquisitely detailed; glittering with gold leaf, mother-of-pearl and colourful enamel paint.
Such work requires perfectionism and patience. Robert, now 40, admits that he can happily spend hours and hours in his studio at Bates Mill in Huddersfield, sometimes working until late at night.
“I’ve always had a love of typography,” he says, “and became interested in craft heritage at an early age.”
In fact, Robert, who lives in Marsden , found a Saturday job with sign writer Brian Scargill in Bradford when he was just 14-years-old. “He was known as Brian the Brush and is still working,” added Robert, “I was fascinated by his van and his typography.”
But after studying art at Calderdale College he began painting, specialising in portraiture. At 31 he did a masters degree in international graphic design practice at the University of Huddersfield and is now a part-time lecturer there, teaching graphic design.
He discovered reverse glass sign making after finding a video on the Vimeo website of master craftsman Dave Smith, from Torquay, and showing it to his students. It proved to be so inspirational that in September last year Robert booked himself on a course with Smith to learn heritage techniques such as sandblasting, hand-scalloping, gold leaf blending, acid etching and other time-honoured skills.
A heavily-worked mirror created on the course took more than 60 hours to complete and, if it was to be sold, would have a price tag of £5,000 to reflect the time spent on it. The mirror demonstrates a wide range of techniques and can only be fully appreciated by close examination. As Robert says: “People need to see it in the flesh and get close up to the craftsmanship. I was trained by the world’s best and can’t thank Dave enough for his tutoring, patience and passion for a craft that was nearly lost.”
Ornamental glass and mirrors were a feature of Victorian homes, shops and pubs and Robert is hoping that discerning householders and business people will once again see their value. Pub mirrors did enjoy something of a revival back in the 1970s and 80s, but they were cheaper, printed versions of the originals and nothing like the work produced at Robert’s Signs by Umberto studio (Umberto was a nickname his father gave him).
Robert has scores of reference books to provide his work with authentic, period typography, and takes inspiration from the natural world. But he harnesses computer technology when ‘tidying up’ his initial hand-drawn designs. As he says: “It’s a combination of modern digital technology and old fashioned craft. I want to keep the craft alive.”
To this end Robert hopes that at some point he may be able to offer workshops to other artists interested in reverse glass sign making techniques and, in the meantime, he’s quietly establishing his business with a few small commissions.
More of his work can be seen at signsbyumberto.co.uk