Robert Holbery, the signwriter artist

This article was first published by Melbourne Catholic on 15th December 2020.

Robert Holbery started his career as an apprentice butcher, however his love for signwriting and passion for lettering, along with a steady hand, has seen him painting the windows of menu boards, display signs and storefronts around Victoria, and beyond, for more than 56 years.

At 78, you’ll still find Robbie, as he’s known in the trade, painting by hand, copperplate script adorned with swirls and embellishments, advertising the latest specials for local butchers, cafes and take-away shops. You can see his work on shop window fronts across Melbourne, including the Prahran and Victoria Markets and in rural towns such as Daylesford and Geelong.

Robbie describes himself as a ‘simple man’ who’s been blessed with good health, a beautiful wife of almost 60 years, seven children and 10 grandchildren. He lives in a mud-brick home in Plenty, and his local parish is St Mary’s Catholic Parish in Greensborough, where his beautiful artwork welcomes locals as they enter the church.

With COVID restrictions in Victoria now lifted, the lead up to Christmas has seen Robbie busier than ever. Local retailers who have been long-time clients, some for more than 30 years, have been keen to showcase Robbie’s beautiful signage on their shop fronts while simultaneously advertising their Christmas specials. The work has been non-stop since October.

Man holding paints in front of butcher shop
Signwriter, Robert Holbery

Robbie was in his teens when he started his apprenticeship at a butcher’s shop in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn. In the neighbouring shop was a grocer, where the owner, Daryl, would handwrite the promotional boards. Being interested in letters and signwriting, Robbie approached Daryl and asked if he could teach him the craft during the evenings. Daryl did so, with Robbie practicing his letter writing on old newspapers. It wasn’t long before he started writing the specials each Friday for the butcher’s shop.

In 1961, when Robbie was 19 years old, Hawthorn Football club won the Premiership. His boss, a Hawks fan, bought Robbie brown and gold paint and offered the whole shop front as his canvas. ‘My boss knew I was quite good with the letters, so he asked if I could do something special for Hawthorn,’ said Robbie. ‘I painted a beautiful big hawk with the wings spread out wide, and wrote the words, Premier quality, Hawthorn VFL champions. Go Hawks!

‘Everyone thought it was terrific!’

Recognising his talent, Robbie’s boss encouraged him to learn the signwriting trade, which he did. ‘I started when I was young and over the years I practiced and practiced a lot. That’s how I learned,’ said Robbie. ‘I worked in companies that had sign writers and we’d travel around each week writing the specials for boards and shop fronts, doing it all by hand. There were no stick-on letters or anything like that. That’s where you really learn to move the brushes along and the more you practice and refine your art, the more you develop your own style.’

Robbie is known as ‘the Copperplate man’. He has a distinct flowing style of lettering, using embellishments such as swirls and scrolls. He often mixes the copperplate with his own block lettering, creating his own unique signature look. In his Christmas windows, you’ll see colourful candy canes, hollies, berries, and mistletoe. He draws each by hand. There are no stencils or stickers. Just his tool bag with an assortment of acrylic paints and brushes, and his kneeling pad.

‘Copperplate is a beautiful style. A lot of people learned copperplate at school in my era, but to perfect it, you have to work on it,’ he said. ‘And it’s a lot harder on the glass as it’s quite slippery. But I just love doing it.’

‘It sounds like I’m skiting, but I am good at it because I keep practicing and practicing. I’m passionate about it. Even signwriting guys come up and say, “Mate, how do you use brushes like that?” and there are not many who do it the way I do. As you get older, you get better at it. And I don’t leave the job until I’m happy with the way it looks.’

Though considered artwork, the glass being his canvas, Robbie doesn’t sign the windows. He prefers to ‘let the writing speak’. ‘I always try to make my own style of window,’ he said. ‘I’ve drawn Father Christmases and all that, but when it’s just lettering, it’s neater and it speaks to you more. This style of lettering is my trademark. People see it and know it’s mine.’

It’s not uncommon for people to stop on the street and watch Robbie while he meticulously works. Having ruled the guiding lines with white chalk, he then paints each of the letters by hand, adding embellishments as he goes. One of his most valuable tools is his thumb.

‘I use my thumb in order to thin things down,’ he said. ‘To get a nice line, you put the white paint on and then you get your thumb and you slide it around and get the final points. My thumb is a big tool. It gets a bit worn away and marked sometimes!’

‘I’ve been very blessed with very steady hands, too. I’ve never had to use what’s called a Mahl Stick, which you rest your hand on to keep steady. People often comment on how steady my hands are.’

As Robbie works in the street, people take photos, compliment his work, ask him questions, and there’s been a number of times that he’s been asked for selfies, including with ABC news anchor Tamara Oudyn. She had noticed him signwriting on a butcher’s shop in Yarraville and asked for a photo. When he realised who she was, he commented that he was a big fan. She suggested Robbie pass on some business cards, keen for the ABC to engage his work. The following day, Robbie delivered the cards to the ABC along with a handwritten note. ‘I didn’t expect to hear anything more, but Tamara rang saying, “I’d like to thank you for that beautiful letter. It was the most beautiful writing. I’ll keep it as a bookmark for my books”.’

Tamara is not the only recipient of Robbie’s beautiful letters. During COVID, and even for years before the lockdown period, he sent random letters to people whose names he found in the old telephone directories. He can’t recall how many he’s sent over the years. But he knows it’s ‘heaps’.

‘I just get out the old phone books and pick out names. It’s random. I might go through Smith, Jones, or some other name. I’ll write and say, “You’re a beautiful person” or “God bless” or “Stay safe”. I write it in a copperplate with the dip pens, and I do calligraphy too.’

‘All the ladies down at the Diamond Creek post office know me quite well. They know my writing and I write them letters, too. They ask, “What are these letters for?” and I say, “They’re just feel-good letters”.’ Robbie doesn’t sign the letters. He simply posts them with a prayer. ‘I hope people feel good when they receive them.’

Faith plays an important role in Robbie’s life. He prays the Rosary every day before he starts work and was a volunteer with the Sisters of Charity in Fitzroy for 10 years. He still maintains contact with the Sisters and enjoys writing each of them a special card by hand each year.

‘Life is very precious,’ he said. ‘My father always used to say, “It’s a passing journey. It’s the way you conduct yourself”, meaning just be nice with people. I’m a people person, I like people and I’m a good talker! And I love writing, I always have. I just love what I do, and I’ll keep on doing it. I can’t stop myself!’

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