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Obituary: Robin Abbey, the sign-writer of Scotland

Robin Abbey, a prolific sign-writer based in Edinburgh, has died at the age of 70.

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Edinburgh sign-writer Robin Abbey has passed away

Abbey passed away peacefully at the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh on the morning of August 17th, 2019. He was a much-loved brother, uncle, grandpa and friend, who touched many lives through both his work as a sign-writer and as “a friend to all”.

Abbey was born in Beaminster, Dorset on October 13th, 1948. He was raised in Cannington near Bridgwater, Somerset and attended Somerset College of Art in Taunton where he undertook a course in typographic design.

Lettering was a part of Abbey’s life from the beginning, exploring the world of letterpress printing and understanding type before eventually moving into sign-writing under the guidance of local artisans in the area. He was mentored by Bev Blackmore who ran local sign firm Price Glass in Taunton and was seeking an apprentice.

“Robin came highly recommended by some of the tutors that I knew at the college and we immediately became friends because of our passion for typefaces,” Blackmore says. “Robin came to work with me, I introduced him to the fundamentals of sign-writing, and he introduced me to the pleasures of real ale.”

After Blackmore left Price Glass to start a new business in Milverton, Abbey went with him and lived at his family home for some time. They kept in touch after Abbey moved away and their friendship continued at a distance for many years. “I shall miss his sense of humour and his great kindness, but most of all his love of letter forms – a very talented man.”

In 1999, Abbey moved to Edinburgh and pursued sign-writing full-time, first from his home at Albert Place and then at his workshop in Coburg House Art Studios in Leith, Edinburgh.

His work became an integral part of the streetscapes of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site, with his signs gracing many of the shopfronts in the Stockbridge and New Town areas of the city.

Andrew Crummy, an artist based in Edinburgh, describes how Abbey was a friend to him and his family, even painting the number on his front door. “A wonderfully talented sign-writer, he did a stunning piece of sign-writing in the bar in the Prestoungrange Gothenburg [in] Prestonpans,” he comments. “As a muralist and painter, I had high respect for his approach of working in a traditional manner. His craft and use of brush and paint was of a very high order. His work is all over Scotland.

"He was part of Three Harbours Arts Festival and other festivals, always willing to pass on skills to the next generation and sharing his great craft. His collection of brushes and other aids for sign-writing was always a fascination to me. And in our house, he painted our door number, 83a. Wonderful man, will be missed.”

In an interview in 2016 with the Revival of Disappearing Architectural Professions, a World Heritage project, Abbey summarised the personal touch that sign-writing requires: “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.”

Speaking with his friend Charley Lion, a chalkboard artist who was also mentored by Abbey, she explains how when she moved to Edinburgh three years ago not knowing anyone, Abbey was the first sign-writer to open the door to his studio at Coburg.

“He taught me to sign-write. For my birthday that year, he got me my first set of sign-writing brushes – coincidentally we have the same birthday. Last year, we celebrated our joint hundredth – my 30th and his 70th,” comments Lion.

She adds that she has been inundated with messages from people whose lives he impacted. “He was such a great friend to so many people, he was a real adopter of people. We were always joking about us ‘waifs and strays’ – anyone who was a bit of a quirky character he’d just adopt and give a real home to.”

Abbey shared his passion of sign-writing to whoever showed interest, becoming firm friends with those intrigued by the world of lettering. “His thing was he wanted to keep it going,” says Lion. “He didn’t want it to die out as a craft. I think he felt some sort of duty to pass it on. If people were interested, he’d show them how it’s done.”

Outside of his sign-writing work, Abbey was a collector of books – particularly those on print, lettering, typography and sign-writing. He spent a lot of his time in the studio, practising and experimenting with techniques, as well as playing the violin and going to the pub with friends.

A funeral service will be held on Friday, August 30th at Seafield Crematorium, Edinburgh, followed by a reception at Coburg Studios.

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