15 Jan 2014

Ghostsigns in the Family: Henry Dunn of Deal

Painted sign on a wall in Deal, Kent, for Henry Dunn's furniture shop

This mid-1800s photograph shows a painted sign on the wall in Deal, Kent, advertising Henry Dunn and his various trades of cabinet maker, upholsterer, paper hanger, undertaker, broker and more. Born in 1818, Henry Dunn is my Great Great Great Grandfather, so I was chuffed to discover that he shared my appreciation of the hand-painted form and used it to great effect to advertise his services. His neighbour, Thomson, also commissioned a great sign, making good use of his significantly narrower piece of wall to advertise his baked goods. The curved lines of letters are an excellent device used by signwriters to avoid squashing or stretching the text within the limitations imposed by the space they are working with.

1800s street scene in Deal, Kent showing Henry Dunn's furniture shop

This wider angle photo shows the street scene where these two signs were once found, including the fascia of Dunn’s shop. Out the front of the shop can be seen various items of furniture that were presumably for sale, and a lady, perhaps Henry Dunn’s wife Elizabeth who he married in 1844. They went on to have 10 children in 20 years, one of whom was also called Henry, hence the addition of Senior to the text on the wall sign. Henry Junior was born in 1846 which means the sign must have been painted after this date.

Framed portraits of Henry Dunn and Elizabeth Betts Wellard

The business must have done well enough to allow Henry and his wife to commission their portraits. These are scans of the originals which are at my uncle’s house in Norwich. The poses are brilliant (when did we move away from the profile for portraits?) and Henry looks like a true gentleman in his billowing blue cravat.

1800s street scene in Deal, Kent showing Henry Dunn's furniture shop

This older photo again shows Dunn’s shop but this time with a different wording. It also gives the date of business being established as 1798 at the top. Thomson hasn’t moved in next door yet but there is another business using the same portion of wall to advertise teas. (Perhaps at a later date there was a palimpsest of the two signs?) There is also a lot of painted signage, including one for The Old Play House, on the wall adjacent to Henry Dunn’s main shop, and also some on the smaller protruding wall beyond that, ‘…for hire’.

I love these old photos and the snapshot they give of life and business on one street in Deal. Given that there are at least four distinct signs on just the walls shown in the older image shows how prevalent these painted advertisements once were. That one of the signs belongs to a distant relative of mine just adds to the appeal. Thank you very much to my uncle Keith for sharing these and the related family history that accompanies them. I can now claim to have a long heritage in my family’s appreciation of the power of painted signs.

Subscribe to my newsletter for news, events and projects from the world of ghost signs. I curate the newsletter roughly monthly and welcome submissions.