British Pub Signs


Written by Marlon Dolcy
24 Monday 24th January 2011

D&AD Award-winning illustrator Sroop Sunar looks back hundreds of years to present a pictorial history of England, using the traditional British pub sign to redraw our cultural and visual heritage. We had a chat before her first solo show. 

How would you describe your style of work?

My style is based on old matchbox labels and old consumer labels from the 40s, 50s and the 60s in India. And commercial products of everyday things like soap packaging, hair oil and matchboxes. So the style that I work on is based on that.
What thoughts feeling would you like people to take from your work?
The feeling of nostalgia because it comes from that whole vintage background. People have said to me that when they look at my work they feel quite nostalgic it reminds them of old toys and memories from their childhood. Also my work is really bright and quite garish so something that it’s just really catchy and appealing to look at. Someone can just look at it and take it for face value.
How large is your collection of matchbox labels and what is your fascination with them?
I have got around 2-3000 labels, but that is not even a lot within the collectors circle. So I would not consider myself exactly in the collectors circle with the older guys. My fascination is simple really and is based on the style of the artwork and the aesthetic and the colours and subject matter. And print quality.


How long have you been collecting them? 

For about a year and a half, I started when I was doing my final year dissertation at university in my third year on the same subject and I first came across them when I was browsing through a few books and I saw this encyclopaedia of different labels across the world, and I picked out the ones from India which I thought were really cool.
Are there any social and economic factors that we should be aware of in the imagery of your work (matchbox labels and pub signs)?
They all have a contextually strong historical background. Matchbox labels reflect a certain thing that was happening in India in the 40s and 50s which was the political context of the Indian Independence. They show how social factors reflect the demographic of India at the time and the types of people that were around and the social changes that were happening. You can see in the labels that they are platforms for advertising political propaganda and ideals of beauty at the time
What is the idea behind The Golden Glassy and why did you choose the history of British pub signs as the theme for your show?
I think that when people look at my work they tend to pigeonhole me as being an Indian artist and concentrating on Indian subject matter so I wanted to get away from that. I feel that pub signs are a quintessential part of British Culture and heritage and identity. The idea came about from my uncle who lives in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, which is a predominantly Asian area and there is a pub there called the Golden Glassy. I was showing my uncle my portfolio when I was working on a theme for the exhibition and he said “Sroop, you should do pub signs” and I said to him that was a really great idea. So he said that there was a pub around the corner called the Golden Glassy and it kind of spiralled from there.
Aesthetically your work seems to be retrospective and vintage. Do you prefer older art to modern?

I have no preference, I love all kinds of art, but I am particularly drawn to vintage illustration. I absolutely love it. I like the textures and colouring; to me it is really intriguing and really sensual with the textures. I use screen printing in most of my work not in the commercial projects commissioned for magazines for I have to use digital but I screen print whenever I can because I like the quality of it.

In terms of the authorship for the illustrations of the matchbox labels, were there predominant artists involved, and were their identities available?

People who designed these labels in the 40s and 50s were just these random, underpaid Indian guys who came from these poor areas in India working in these tiny little factories. They were all commercially hired, so they tended to design not only matchbox labels but also packaging for soaps and all that kind of stuff so you see how all these little products were designed under the same house all influenced each other. For example you will have a pair of scissors on a matchbox label, or a bottle of hair oil and wonder what this has to do with matches, but they are just packages for advertising

You seem to explore the historical context of art within your work. Why do feel that it is important to document this?
Part of my whole illustration style and matchbox labels is that there is a strong relation to India and that it is part of my heritage and my background, and I am really fascinated by the time period from when my grandparents left India and came to the UK, so there is a lot of fascination with stuff that was happening around that time and why they left and came to the UK. So I think that the history of Indian independence is a huge thing within my culture and my background, and it is a personal thing and that it is important to talk about and for people to become aware of it if perhaps they haven’t been.
My grandparents came to India in the 50s. My parents were born in India but they came here when they were two years old.
Tell us about your time spent in New Delhi, what was it like and did your experience influence your illustrations?
I moved to Delhi when I was fourteen. My dad got a job out there and it was a temporary thing for five years. All my teenage years were spent there and it was a chaotic and crazy as you could imagine. It was a mind melting experience. I had only been to India once before as a child when I was four years old, which was in rural India so it was worlds apart from city life and it was mad. I went to an American school so it was weird being in this international culture within an Indian culture. It totally influenced my art. For example street culture I absolutely fell in love with, just looking at all the products in the markets and the labels and seeing them first hand. Vintage Bollywood posters, I have a collection of those as well. I discovered a series of collection habits over there.
Sroop Sunar’s Golden Glassy runs 20 Jan - 5 March at the University of the Arts London, WC1V 7EY

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