Age-old craft was signpost to success for Great Cornard artist
If Wayne Tanswell had been less anxious to escape at the end of his last day at school he would have missed the chance encounter that changed his life.
Thumbing a lift home set him on the path to becoming one of Britain’s few remaining traditional signwriters ... his talents now so respected he is a visiting tutor at one of Britain’s top art colleges.
In 2017 renowned street artist Ben Eine – who has often worked with Banksy – invited him to help paint a mural in tribute to victims and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire.
He also exhibits his artworks and has a big new show coming up next year.
But back in 1980 all that was a world away for Wayne who, although he liked art, had no idea how to make it a career.
“On the day I left Sudbury Upper School in 1980 I didn’t even wait for the bus. I scarpered down to Melford Road and hitched a lift,” he said.
The driver who stopped for him was a signwriter Peter Emerson, then living near Sudbury and working in London. They got chatting, and he offered Wayne a job.
“From a kid who wanted to do art or music when I left school – but had no qualifications in either – I hit the jackpot.
“I couldn’t wait to leave school,” he adds, “which is ironic because my wife and son are both teachers, and my daughter has done a master’s degree in art.
“I was never academic but I liked art. My mum and dad were both artistic.
“But I didn’t even know what a signwriter was. Near where we lived in Long Melford was Theobald’s coaches, and I would see an old boy painting the name on the back of the buses.
“I always thought it was fascinating but never did ask what his job was.
“I couldn’t even really write that well, but my dad told me, like a trowel to a bricklayer that brush is a tool ... and you have artistic flair and you can hold the brush.”
After training with Peter, Wayne struck out on his own and found he was always in demand. “I’d go to the pub after work covered in paint – it was kind of obvious what I did – and had no shortage of people asking me to do signs.
“But by the mid ‘80s computer-cut signs were popular. “It was a worrying time for signwriters ... they were having to buy a computer and learn how to operate that as well. But I just wanted to stick with my brushes.”
Worrying about the future made him push himself harder. “When the children were young I used to go out and do a sign, rush home to be with the kids, then rush out to do another one.”
It was the wise words of his father, Long Melford barber Derek Tanswell, that made him appreciate his own potential.
“He recognised it long before I did. He would say you’re not just a signwriter, you’re a lettering artist.
“I used to think I’d learned a dying trade. He said, ‘it will only die if you let it. Look at life differently. Technology has moved on, but that makes you a specialist. Do you think people in places like Lavenham want plastic signs in their villages?’
“A lot of signwriters jumped ship,but sticking with my brushes I became the only one for miles around.
“There are some fantastic computer-cut signs out there, but it’s horses for courses. If you had a fleet of vans you’d want them all to look exactly the same.”
Wayne embraced technology by getting a website and joining Facebook which opened up a whole new world of potential clients.
He now works all over the country and also does demonstrations and classes, including at his workshop in Long Melford.
Regular clients include the National Trust and Greene King, and there have been numerous jobs abroad including Bahrain, Africa, Spain and Holland.
He and his wife, Angie, have lived in Great Cornard for around 30 years. “She teaches English so she’s been my spellchecker ... I’ve certainly made some blinders over the years,” he confesses.
Wayne brought out his first book – Traditional Signwriting an Introductory Guide – in 2009. Publishers were dismissive of the subject but he refused to give up and self-published it instead.
He has since published four more. And he definitely had the last laugh. His book was taken up by Handover, the London shop where he buys his signwriting brushes, and they put one in every starter pack they sold.
“Eight years after I self-published, a publisher contacted me and said we will take you on, and I could say no thanks I don’t need you now.
“I’m still doing the books and am bringing out a tenth anniversary revised edition that combines them all into one.
“A book designer who I taught signwriting helped me – she made me completely redo the content and really was a massive help.”
Six years ago Wayne began exhibiting his literal art – colourful and distinctive depictions of words, phrases and quotes – in galleries. His first collection called Writing Wrongs was exhibited in London, Cambridge, and Suffolk.
He is now working towards a new show Oxymorons which will be at the Apex in Bury at the end of next year.
His work includes a six foot square piece for the Amy Winehouse Foundation. Prints were signed by Amy’s mother Janis and sold to raise money for the charity which helps disadvantaged young people.
He met Janis through his artist daughter Harriet, who had painted a portrait of Janis and Amy.
Harriet also introduced him to street artist Ben Eine, which led to Wayne being asked to help paint the Grenfell Tower mural in Shoreditch.
“He asked me to teach him signwriting, and I wanted to do a graffiti project ... it was like exchanging skills.”
Wayne is never shy of spreading the word about his art. “If I’m working and someone stops to watch I talk to them. You put yourself out there and make yourself known.
“I was signwriting at a shoe shop in London when a woman asked if I’d do a demonstration where she worked. I gave her my email address.
“When the email arrived I was amazed – it was from Central St Martins School of Art.”
The booking from one of the country’s most prestigious art colleges led to contracts as a visiting tutor. “I couldn’t believe it. The first day I came home with my lanyard round my neck, I didn’t want to take it off.”
Last month brought a new challenge. He was asked to paint a poem along a 40 metre stretch of sea wall at Jaywick, as part of a community project being co-ordinated by Caroline Adams who lives near Lavenham.
“I was given the work of a dozen local poets who had written about sea defences.
“I took a line from each poet to make one giant poem, then had to make it fit. The paint is water-based, so it will erode away quite quickly - that’s the idea.”
Wayne can be contacted at www.waynetanswell-signwriter.co.uk