Master Signwriter

Family Man

Alfred’s family in WW2

Joy Gough

Life after Joy

Alfred, in loco parantis


Astonishing email

A little while ago I received the most astonishing email. It was responding to the obituary I had written for my mother and published in The Guardian. It was from a man who had known my grandfather nearly 60 years' before. In fact, in many ways, he knew him better than I did. I will let that man, John Bradford, tell his story.

Astonishing Email

Hello Dominic,

I was prompted to contact you when I came across your moving obituary for your Mother. Although the events I am about to relate happened more than fifty years ago I can remember them clearly, such was their impact on a young mind. It is strange sometimes in life how comfort, support and encouragement arrives from the most unexpected of sources. In my case it was from both your Grandfather and your Mother. I apologise if the following tale sounds a bit Dickensian but it is as I remember it. Perhaps first I should give you a little background.

My name is John Bradford and I was born in 1947 in Derby. Two years later my parents moved to Bedford, my Father having been born there in 1916. In 1959 I was living with my Mother, Father, younger brother and sister on the Cardington road council house area of Bedford when our Mother died unexpectedly at the age of thirty five. I was twelve years old and attended Silver Jubilee Secondary School. I have very few memories of the next three years or so, and left school in 1962, when I had just turned fifteen. I had no qualifications whatsoever. My only real interest at school was art but unfortunately my Father considered it a 'Waste of time' and he gave me little encouragement.

My father worked for Bedfordshire Co-operative Society as a painter and decorator and had a friend called Ron Two. Ron knew your Grandfather, Alfred Gough, quite well, and although at this time he was semi-retired, Ron asked if he would take me on as a trainee signwriter. He somewhat reluctantly agreed. As you will see from the following recollections I have no hesitation in saying this proved a turning point in my life, and although it is too late to thank him or your Mother personally, I am comforted by being able to tell you of my gratitude.

10 Grove Place sign

When I took this picture, on the wall of 11 Grove Place, the sign was already 30 years' old and showing signs of wear and tear. On glass, the text lettering mixes gold leaf with red paint. An unusual flourish from Alfred that shows his accomplishment.

I turned up at his house in Grove Place on my first day at work and was shown down the side of the house to his workshop at the bottom of the garden. I well remember the wonderful smell of oil paints and turpentine that greeted me, and after a few hours of work sanding down signboards, Mrs Gough arrived with a tray of tea and ginger nuts. In the afternoon everything stopped for more tea as we all listened to 'Mrs Dale's Diary' on the radio.

I was paid the princely sum of five shillings a week (25p) but it mattered not a jot. I soaked up his training, and that of another signwriter, Michael Marriot, like a sponge. He was a hard taskmaster though, and I spent probably hundreds of hours practicing lettering on scrap pieces of board. His favourite trick was to have me paint the letter 'S' and when I was done he would take the board from the easel and replace it once more but upside down. This invariably showed that the letter was 'leaning' and not truly vertical meaning I had to do it again and again until he was satisfied.

Initially I did what all young lads did at that time, the work my elders didn't want to do. He had a heavy wooden handcart with metal rimmed wheels with which I had to take ladders and planks to the location of various signwriting jobs that required them such as shop fascias. On occasion, I took this heavy load as far as Bromham Road, a mile away, and on one memorable trip to Mile End Road, double that distance.

Gold Leaf

Alfred Gough's gold leaf sheets and brush, unused since the 1960s

But over the months, and little by little, I became more proficient. I was eventually allowed to write the 'For Sale' flagboards for Peacocks, the estate agents. He taught me how to produce frosted lettering on glass, and the miracle of applying gold leaf. I remember he had a small brush that he gently wiped on his forehead to apply a little 'grease' and then used the brush to pick up the sheets of gold leaf. By the time I left his employ I had written signs as diverse as pub signs for Wells & Winches brewery and the gilded honours board for Bedford School.

My father had been abandoned by his parents in 1918 and never saw them again so I had no paternal grandparents. In many ways your Grandfather unknowingly fulfilled this role. He was the only person 'of age' that I had any contact with. All the time I was with him he talked, about anything and everything, and I listened and learned. He became a mentor to me and I think I learned more of the World from him than I ever had at school, or sadly from my Father.

I remember there was a sparrows' nest in the roof of the workshop and I watched the parent birds flying back and forth feeding their young. He told me they were house sparrows, but that there were other types too like tree sparrows and hedge sparrows. Later that day he came into the workshop carrying a small wooden box. He called me over and on opening the box I saw it was full of eggs of different sizes and colours nestling on a bed of cotton wool. He explained they were bird eggs he had collected as a child. He showed me the small blotchy brown egg of a robin. Then a larger blue egg with black spots he said was from a song thrush. He knew each and every one of dozens of eggs. I was fascinated by the variety of colours. He even had two cuckoo eggs and told me the cuckoo has the ability to lay an egg that matches the colour of those it sees in the nest it is using. Frankly, I took that with a pinch of salt but now many years later, I know that this amazing fact is true.


1964. Grandfather Alfred Gough (71) and Mother Rosemary (31) at the time John knew them. My brother Marc and I alongside

One day at work, the tea was delivered by a young woman (whose name with age I had forgotten, but I now know was Rosemary) some years older than me. I remember she was very slim with long hair. She said her mum was unwell and she was doing our tea for her. She asked how I was getting on and noticed I had been sketching during my break. She asked if I liked art and when I replied yes she said something like 'traditional or modern?' I am a little embarrassed to admit I had absolutely no idea what she meant. My education was basic to say the least and we had no TV at home. I think I spluttered 'Both' or 'All' or some such and she said I should go and visit Cecil Higgins Art Gallery by the river as they have examples of both.

I knew where the art gallery was but for all the wrong reasons. As a younger child I would fish for the goldfish in the large pond in front of the entrance until chased off by the doorman but I had never been inside. I think she must have seen the bemused look on my face because she then said something like 'I'll take you one day if you wish' I muttered a thank you and she left. I thought nothing more of this until one Saturday morning (Yes we then worked Saturday mornings) some weeks later she came into the workshop just as we finished for the day and told me she was going to the art gallery and would I like to come. I replied yes and we walked down Castle Road to the gallery.

That day was a revelation for me and determined my future career for many years to come. Rosemary showed me my first 'Modern' painting, a Jackson Pollack, and I was enthralled. I loved the Pre-Raphaelite paintings I saw there, a love I still have today. I also saw a newly exhibited painting of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. Over the next few weeks I visited the art gallery again and again and sometimes spoke with Rosemary about my visits. She often came into the workshop and we practiced Gothic lettering together. She loaned me a small book of poetry.

Apart from having to recite the odd poem at school I had never intentionally read a poem, but I enjoyed reading her book. I enjoy poetry to this day. In truth I think I probably had a teenage crush on this beautiful, sophisticated and intelligent woman who took the time to talk with me. I had confided in her more than once that I was thinking of leaving home as 'I didn't think there was a future in Bedford' I cannot now recall her actual words but I remember she was sympathetic and encouraging. My love of art and my thirst for more knowledge led me to hitch hike to Cambridge, Norwich and London to visit different art galleries.

Kelpra Studio - Bath Street

The Kelpra Studio workers outside their Bath Street, London EC1 premises with John sitting on step with sleeves rolled up © John Bradford.

A short time later I did leave, but regretfully I don't remember if I said goodbye to Rosemary or not. Within months I was living in London and working as a screen printer with Master Printmaker Christopher Prater in his London Atelier Kelpra Studio. I don't want to name drop too much but by age eighteen I was working alongside artists such as Joe Tilson, Bridget Riley, Eduardo Paolozzi, Patrick Caulfield, and Richard Hamilton, helping them to create prints. The screen printer worked closely with the artist to help interpret their work, and when the limited edition was completed, numbered and signed, the printer's name was often added in recognition of their contribution. I'm not sure Rosemary ever gave me a thought again but I'm sure she would smile knowing my name is today included in collections all over the World, including a large collection in the Tate.

Whilst working in London I met my wife and we married in 1970. By 1971 I had opened my own Atelier in Chichester producing both fine art prints and commercial work. Would all this have come about had I not met your Grandfather and Rosemary? I think perhaps not.  I was with your Grandfather less than two years and often wonder what might have become of me had I not met him. I would certainly not have become the man I am today I'm sure. Most of my contemporaries stayed in and around Bedford with very few moving further afield. Your Grandfather in particular made me aware of a World way beyond Bedford, and Rosemary ignited my love of art, both of which were instrumental in shaping my future. The role they played is known to my wife, my children, and my grandchildren. I shall be forever grateful to them both.

Kind regards
John Bradford

ps I can also tell you a tale about the cleaning of brushes on the workshop door. I am unsure when the workshop was erected but it must have been many years previously as the paint build up created from cleaning brushes on the inside of the door at the end of the day was about 4 inches thick. One day I was tasked with removing it as the door wouldn't close properly. The dried paint came away in great chunks and because many different colours had be used the exposed edges had a wonderful rainbow effect. Seeing this I took a few pieces home and enhanced the effect by carefully sanding the edges to expose more colour and finally glued them to a board to form a sort of mosaic. I took this piece of artwork/memorabilia with me from address to address right up until 1989 when it was stolen during a break in, along with many of the prints gifted to me by the artists. Perhaps it still hangs on someone's wall today? I like to think so.

A few prints that John worked on with artists at the Kelpra Studio

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley

John Piper

John Piper

Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton