Wearside Echoes: Signs of the past

Bill Nattress with one of his paintings.
Bill Nattress with one of his paintings.
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A RETIRED sign writer is drawing on his talents to help preserve Sunderland’s past.

Bill Nattress, 70, has painted so many pictures from old postcards of Wearside that he is now looking to move to a larger home – just to store them.

“It all started about ten years ago, when I had to have a heart by-pass operation,” said Bill, who lives in sheltered accommodation at Hall Farm, Doxford Park.

“The nurses suggested I take up some form of occupational therapy and I chose painting, as I used to enjoy that when I was a boy at Chester Road School.”

Indeed, such was the inspiration of his school-days that Bill, who grew up in Millfield, chose his old school as the topic of his first painting. A picture of the Royal Infirmary soon followed.

“At the start I just took up painting to keep my mind occupied, but I enjoyed it so much that I kept on going. I found it relaxing, and interesting as well,” said Bill.

“After that, I got a book called Sunderland in Postcards out of the library, and copied all the old photos. I’ve done other things, like birds and landscapes, but mostly it is old scenes of Sunderland.

“I copy the old black and white photos and paint them in watercolour or acrylics. It is just like bringing the old days back to life in colour.”

Dozens of the paintings now line the walls of Bill’s small flat, while scores more are stacked on the floor. Each tells a small part of Sunderland’s rich heritage.

“Quite a few were displayed in the passageways of my housing complex for a while, which was nice, but then new health and safety rules meant they had to come down,” said Bill.

“My little flat is now absolutely covered in the them. I must have painted 70 or more over the past few years, although I’ve had to slow down recently as I’ve run out of storage space.”

Bill, whose father managed Walker and Wilson’s newsagents and distributors in the town centre – where Sinatra’s now stands – initially hoped to play cricket for a living as a youngster.

“I was picked to play for Wearmouth in the Durham Senior League when I was about 15, but things didn’t work out in the end,” he said.

“Instead, I started at Short Brothers shipyard as a painter and decorator when I left school. After that I worked for Hector Grabham’s and trained part-time as a sign writer at the art college.”

Bill went on to work for Millfield-based firm A.N. Kent, which produced signs for football clubs across the country – from Leeds and Notts Forest to Newcastle and Sunderland.

“I had the freedom of Roker Park – and St James’ Park too,” he recalls. “It was a great job, I really enjoyed it – people used to call me Billy the Brush!”

Generations of Roker fans will have witnessed Bill’s brushwork over the years, and he is hoping a new generation of art enthusiasts may one day witness his artwork too.

“I’d certainly like to have an exhibition at some point. I’ve got more than enough paintings for a display, and I’m sure many people would find the scenes of old Sunderland interesting,” he said.

“Bringing a touch of colour to old postcard pictures of Sunderland is my way of preserving the past.”