LAW x Nudie Craftsmen: Ged Palmer
“A Roman letter is about two thousand years old and it’s unchanged. There’s stability in that,” Ged explains from his perch overlooking London’s Broadway Market. Runaway flecks of gold leaf glinting quietly in his beard, he offers a brush’s long bristles up to the glass of the soon-to-open restaurant and bar. “That’s what drew me to lettering; there are so many rules to it, so it’s about hitting the books and just applying yourself.”
Rolling up the sleeves of his work shirt, Ged confesses that he never felt a burning desire to express a wildly profound thought or idea as a teenager, but was enticed by lettering’s ritualistic repetition and the requirement of a monk-like devotion to the craft. “When I first picked up [sign painter’s enamel] and a lettering quill, it was everything I’d been looking for. Of all the tools I’ve used, the brush is just the best.”
Now a skilled sign painter by trade, Ged enacts a deliberate dance of controlled gestures. Working backwards against the window’s interior, a silky-black outline glides around its curve, describing the letterform’s width and weight with a mesmerising flow. The stroke’s arc emerges confidently from the wake of the brush, almost as if completing itself. “It’s just muscle memory…” Ged reasons, “I’ve spent most of my waking life drawing letters, so I’ve got a feel for them.” He acknowledges that, “drinking as much coffee as possible without jittering out and fucking your lines up,” helps in its own way too.
Art & Alchemy
Surprisingly serene within his hyper honed-in, caffeine-fuelled fugue; Ged’s hands dart around assuredly like two trustworthy co-workers. He sets about boiling gelatine capsules in de-ionised water, mixing ink to correct consistencies and holding razor-thin brushes aloft for inspection in the mid-morning light. This union of hypnotic physicality and intriguing chemical processes places sign painting in a smudged space, somewhere between art and alchemy. “When you start talking about acid etching and glue chipping, the right amount of static on a gilding tip, or the cohesive properties of water, it throws in a really interesting dynamic to the whole thing,” Ged muses.
Whilst many would find engaging with centuries of trials, traditions and techniques overwhelming, Ged found comfort in a craft that could be remarkably simple and yet infinitely complicated. “Say like silvering glass,” he marvels, “when you see a piece of plain glass with these chemicals going onto it and it becoming a mirror in front of your eyes… When people invented that process they were blowing themselves up!”
Buckinghamshire-based sign painter Ash Bishop, who demonstrated the silvering process to Ged, is one of many names peppered respectfully throughout our conversation. Alongside Ash, there’s David Kynaston from Wales, whose Roman letters have, “seriously divine geometry,” Dave Smith, “the king of gilding,” from Torquay and Jon ‘LetterKnight’ Leeson from Leicester. “He could paint circles around me blind drunk,” Ged laughs.
Earlier this year, Ged brought some of the great and good of this older generation of sign painters together for Business As Usual, an exhibition he curated at The Book Club in East London. For those, “weird enough to try and make a living out of sign painting,” these opportunities to break bread, strengthen bonds and share knowledge are vital. “There aren’t any trade schools in the UK teaching this stuff, so you have to seek out the older guys who are willing to teach and learn from them.”
The exhibition also gave Ged a chance to tip his hat, pay his dues and give respect to some of the old boys whom he so clearly admires. Honest and humble to a tee, Ged is quick to cease any suggestion that wading through this ancient craft and identifying himself within a long lineage could potentially be a burden, rather than a blessing. “I don’t see myself as carrying the torch for lettering or sign painting,” he admits, “I’m just trying to catch up and do justice to the people I’ve met.”
From the chalk pounce pattern - a technique used to transfer the original sketch onto glass - to the final layer of protective varnish, Ged works reverentially and yet unhindered by the ever-present weight of tradition. Standing back from the marriage of matte and mirrored gilding that winks in the window, talk turns to legacies and how long the piece could last. Ged, as ever, is resolute in his modesty. “You still see gilded mirrors that were made at the turn of the century and shop fronts from as early as the twenties today…” he concludes. “I just hope that this will last at least as long as the business is here.”
Words by Joseph Bond
Shot by Elliot Kennedy