December 8th, 2023Sign of the times: it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
If you have ever wandered around Daylesford in November, you have probably seen Robbie Holbery signwriting the windows of Daylesford Meat Co in Vincent Street, and Albert Street Butchers, just around the corner.
Nothing remarkable so far, but Robbie’s calligraphy is a little different from most you will see. It’s handwritten copperplate – perfected over 60 years in the game. And there’s much more to his life than just writing.
Robbie, now 81, actually started his working life as an apprentice butcher in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn. His boss used to ask him to write the specials on the shop window and in 1961, with the Hawks up for the VFL grand final, he went one step further.
“My boss, who was an apprentice ruck coach and runner at Hawthorn, said ‘gee, Rob, you are pretty good’, went and bought me some gold paint and said ‘see what you can do with that’.
“I did a hawk with its wings outspread and wrote ‘premium quality, go hard, 1961 VFL Champions’. The boss thought it was amazing and all the tradies used to come down Glenferrie Road and put their thumbs up. That went in The Age and the Hawthorn Football Club asked me to recreate it for their museum out at Waverley. They wanted to pay me but I said I was just happy to do it. Oh, they won that year.”
When Robbie finished his apprenticeship, he took his boss’s advice and swapped to signwriting. He was mentored by another signwriter, returned to school and practised every chance he could.
He started doing all of the markets, Victoria, Prahran, Moonee Ponds, along with plenty of shops, and then 31 years ago he was in Daylesford and popped into what is now Daylesford Meat Co and had a chat with owner Ronnie Layfield.
“Ronnie said I could have a go and a few years later I started with Danny in Albert Street. They are both lovely people and I have been coming to Daylesford for 31 years now. And even though it’s only a short time each year I feel like I am part of the town.
“People stop me and ask how I can do such beautiful work. It sounds like I am skiting, but I really love what I do and getting compliments is just wonderful. And today it is mostly done with stencils, and everyone is so rushed. I am just an old bloke standing on the footpath with paints and brushes everywhere. I think people feel they can come up to me. The window is my canvas.”
As if on cue, while we talk on the phone and Robbie is working on the corner of Nicholson and Pigdon streets, Fitzroy North, he stops for a moment to pass on his phone number to an interested shopkeeper.
During Covid, Robbie, who also paints old farmhouses as a hobby, kept busy with his calligraphy, but not with shops.
“I got the old (phone) directories out and picked names at random and wrote messages of hope in copperplate and then posted them all out. I live at Plenty, and the Diamond Creek Post Office ladies all knew me there.
“I just wrote things like ‘look after your family’ and ‘be safe with Covid’ and sent them out. Feelgood letters. Some people might have opened them and wondered ‘what nut did this?’ but for others it might have been a wonderful thing to receive.”
I ask if Robbie received any feedback. “I never put my address. They were just feelgood letters. Letters of hope.
I say I wish he had found my address, I could have done with a letter of hope. I think one might arrive soon…
Back to Daylesford. This year, “with a few medical things” he was joined by his wife Eileen and youngest daughter Kate, but mostly he has come alone which led to him staying with the late Don Wreford, a glassblower of fame.
“Don used to admire my work and I got to know him well and he said to come and stay at his place, so I did for a while. One year I came up and called out in thefront of his house but his son-in-law came out and said he had passed away. That was quite a shock.
“He said no-one writes like that anymore. He even gave me some of his work. And I stayed with his daughter, Jessie, a few times after that. Wonderful people.”
And finally, back to football. Now while Robbie did the big gold hawk back in 1961, he was always a Carlton supporter. While writing on Anne Jesaulenko’s dress shop in Heidelberg in 1979, he met Carlton captain and coach Alex Jesaulenko who said he had heard Robbie used to do a bit of running.
“I competed in the Stawell Gift, that sort of thing, and Alex said ‘how would you like to come down to Carlton and show the boys how to move along?’.
“So, I did that and met people like Peter Jones, Geoff Southby, Bruce Doull… they all accepted me. And they won that year too.” Words: Donna Kelly | Image: Kyle Barnes