From the late 19th century through to around the 1940s, everyday shopkeepers across England advertised their businesses on glass. Across the country, rows of glass storefronts would’ve glistened along the town’s main shopping street.
Most of the store windows were “gilded or chemically silvered. It was just a beautiful thing. It would catch your eye as you walked past. They would even position these glass pieces … at a slight angle so that the consumer would be looking up into the work, into the actual name,” said traditional ornamental glass artist David Adrian Smith in a phone interview.
Similar ornate glass panels were commonly used to decorate pubs and gin palaces (the opulent gin bars of the late Victorian era). And breweries made beautiful panels to advertise their wares. These ornamental glass panels were not limited to England. Other countries around the world, including the United States, had their own unique styles, especially Italy and France.
These glass panels were made by reverse glass painting, an art whereby metal leaf and paint is applied to the back of a glass pane. In the past, several different types of craftsmen would combine their skills to work on a pane. The pane would be brilliant cut—a process that uses a rotating stone wheel to cut patterns into the glass. Then the pane would be passed to the signwriter for painting and gilding, and then on to the embosser for etching. Yet today, as a world-renowned signwriter and glass ornamentor, Smith does it all.
Smith’s clients include well-known names: luxury brands such as Burberry, liquor companies such as Jameson Whiskey and Booths Gin, movie studios including Universal Studios and Disney, music companies such as Sony Music, as well as world-class institutions such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Smith is the only craftsman in the world who can teach all the processes of reverse glass painting, according to The Heritage Crafts Association, the UK charity that supports heritage crafts in the UK. He’s a passionate advocate of the art that’s critically endangered in the UK, and he’s keen to keep the craft going. In recognition for his work, Smith has just been awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to reversed glass ornamental artistry, a national recognition.
“I can’t believe it, to be honest. It’s wonderful to be recognized,” Smith said. He feels the award is especially important to ensure that more people know about the craft. The recognition is not only for Smith. “It’s an honor for my family,” he says, who are the backbone of the business.
Smith also sincerely appreciates the people who have come before him and shared their skills with him. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.
Regardless of any accolades, Smith is simply doing what he loves. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else; this is what I was born to do, I guess,” he said.
Learning the Craft
Smith has always been interested in art. “If I wasn’t at school, I’d be drawing,” he said. He painted his first business sign at 14, after his father’s friend asked him to create a sign for his hotel in Torquay, Devon. That first foray into hand-painted signwriting led him to create more hotel signs in Torquay, the popular seaside tourist town in southwest England where he’s spent most of his life.
When Smith left school in 1984, his father helped him find a signwriting apprenticeship with Gordon Farr. “It was just before any computers came in, so I came into the backend of the old-fashioned trade of signwriting.”
For Smith, that five-year apprenticeship was a key point in his career. “I came into a trade where there were older guys there teaching you how to paint letters with a brush,” he said. One of the signwriters introduced him to gold leaf, but he had to go further afield to learn more.
Smith then stumbled across the work of Rick Glawson in a magazine article. Glawson was a signwriter and restoration artist specializing in reverse glass painting, and owner of the Fine Gold Sign Co. in Wilmington, California. He read how Glawson taught old-fashioned processes to young people and the staff at Disney in California.
Glawson sounds a lot like Smith. He was “a kind, warmhearted gentleman who was working away trying to figure out how things were made,” Smith said. Then he’d share what he’d found with others.
The two formed a close friendship. “He was a huge inspiration to me for taking on this craft and going a little bit further with what I wanted to learn,” Smith said.
In 1990, Glawson invited Smith to the California Conclaves, a group of 100 or so gifted artists from across the world who met in Glawson’s shop. Over the weekend, the artists would share gold leaf skills and glassworking techniques. Almost every year, Smith took part in the event, right up until Glawson’s early death in 2003.
Smith recalls the first time he went to the California Conclaves event: “It just blew my mind! It was beautiful, just like an old candy store with all the gilded work and all the old-fashioned processes and all the original [glass] panels on the walls. You literally felt like you were stepping back in time.”
At that time, Smith felt that craftsmen in America were more open to sharing the techniques than the artists back in England.
Another important influence on Smith’s work was an American group called The Letterheads. Glawson’s California Conclaves, which hosted the event Smith attended, came under the umbrella of The Letterheads.
The Letterheads were set up in 1975 by seven artists working out of Denver, Colorado, who got together on the weekend to share skills and ideas. Noel Weber and Mark Oatis were two of the founding artists, and Smith is still in touch with them. They are also two of the numerous people who endorsed Smith when The Heritage Crafts Association nominated him for the MBE. The Letterheads grew from that small group to local meetups around the world, some as large as 5,000 artists. They’re a little “like Comic Con [a large comic book convention] but in the sign world,” Smith said.
Smith believes The Letterhead meetups that started to emerge in England in the 1990s were responsible for people sharing their craft skills again. Old-time signwriters joined the meetups out of curiosity and were pleased that the craft was being shared.
Smith remembers that when Gordon Farr retired around 2010, he said he was putting his brushes away because of computers. “I said, ‘Gordon, I don’t know if you know, but the signwriting is coming back,’ and he was so pleased.”
Fine Hand Skills and Technology
Sharing craft processes face to face has been an important part of Smith’s success, but social media has also had a part to play. Social media sites such as Instagram have helped people see his craft, which perhaps wouldn’t have happened before. In response to the images and videos of his work that he posts online, Smith gets a lot of emails from young people. “They have all kind of had enough of computers; they want to do something with their hands,” he said.
Online, they can see that Smith’s work always starts by putting pencil to paper. “Pencil drawing is the key thing. There’s more of a natural kind of fluid movement to it than with a mouse or stylus for the computer,” he explained. Drawing the designs in this way also helps an artist to become familiar with the shapes and styles of the text and lettering, enabling him or her to eventually become proficient enough to letter freehand.
When Smith works on the back of glass, drawing is a necessary first step in planning the design. Yet putting pencil to paper is more than just a plan. Smith truly believes that drawing “comes from the heart … That’s the soul there working.”
Not only has Smith’s work inspired others online, but it’s also resulted in some notable commissions across the world. American singer-songwriter John Mayer spotted one of Smith’s pencil illustrations online. That led to Smith being commissioned by Sony Music and Columbia Records in 2012 to design the cover for Mayer’s fifth studio album, “Born and Raised.” Mayer wanted the cover to emulate the style of old-fashioned trading cards. Smith worked directly with Mayer on the design via video conferencing. “He was brilliant because he’s a bit of a savvy designer; [that’s what] he calls himself,” Smith said.
Mayer shared Smith’s work with his fans online. And Smith believes this was a big part of his becoming more widely recognized for reverse glass painting, propelling his work into the public eye.
Smith’s online followers have been watching one of his current commissions for the past three years. “Luckily, I had a client who was willing to wait all this time for it to be made,” Smith said. He was commissioned by Russell Manley, who had been following Smith for a number of years. Manley owns Ludlow Blunt, the Brooklyn, New York-based hair salon favored by the rich and famous. Robert de Niro, David Beckham, and Tilda Swinton are among his clientele. Many TV shows and movies have been shot at the salon.
Manley is an advocate of all old crafts, Smith explained. (He also endorsed Smith’s nomination for the MBE). The Ludlow Blunt salon has the feel of an old barber shop with old-fashioned hairdressing tools and barber chairs. Manley asked Smith to design an old-fashioned sign on glass to fit in with the salon decor.
The Ludlow Blunt panel is Smith’s masterpiece and you can see why. It’s a little like a needlework sampler. “I’ve managed to get a really nice, beautiful panel which has got all the different processes of reverse glass on it, and [it’s] probably [one of] the most technical panels in the world today,” he said. It even includes rare techniques he taught himself from books. And of course, every step of the way has been captured online in videos, blogs, and images. Smith is set to personally deliver the sign to the salon in March.
While Smith embraces social media, he’s adamant that machines could never replicate what he does. “Those sharp, clean edges that a computer leaves behind” simply can’t compare with a handmade object. “I think doing it by hand gives it a soul,” he said.
Continuing the Craft
As the only one in the world who knows all the reverse glass painting skills, Smith must feel a certain responsibility to pass these skills along. Artists from around the world come to his workshop in Torquay to learn the glass processes he’s been so keen to uphold.
Teaching is something Smith just loves. “It’s interesting to see people’s faces light up when you are holding your brush and you’re painting letters with it,” he said. Some of the younger people coming into the trade didn’t realize that it used to be done that way.
“Just seeing people create something is kind of a cool thing, to see their face at the end when they’re standing with a panel they’ve made. They can’t quite believe they’ve made something they’ve seen on the street, a shop front, or something like that.
“It’s just one of those crafts that we don’t want extinct, and by sharing it with people, I believe that it will carry on for the next generation to view as well,” he said. “It’s important to keep it alive and that goes for every craft, really.”
To find out more about David Adrian Smith, visit DavidArianSmith.com