The “Mysterious” Ghost Signs on London Walls

Spooky signs about London

— Lito Apostolakou

If while waiting for the bus your eyes wander at the walls of buildings nearby and happen to notice some fading old fashioned letters painted on brickwork, make sure to snap a photo. You may well have discovered a yet undocumented ghost sign. Sam Roberts may be wanting to hear all about it.

Ghost signs is the name given to the fading remains of hand-painted wall advertisements. It is also an online resource created by Sam Roberts and aims at documenting these relics of old advertising before they disappear forever.

The History of Advertising Trust (HAT)

Ghost Signs is part of the History of Advertising Trust which holds the largest collection of UK advertising in the world.

Before the addition of the Ghost Signs Archive they did not have anything dedicated to hand painted advertising. With the support of HAT and sponsorship from Rank Hovis, Sam Roberts set about collating and researching the raw material for the archive.

It now features the work of some 160 photographers and over 700 examples from across the UK and Ireland. Most of the documented wall advertisements have been painted in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, before the onset of printed posters.

How Wall Advertisements were drawn

Fountain pen, anyone?

“The craftsmen who produced the signs were very skillful,” says Sam Roberts.

“They would use a “pounce wheel” and “pounce bag” to transfer a small design onto a large wall space by gridding up the design, scaling up the squares on the grid to paper or cloth, perforating the outlines (with the wheel), mounting to the wall and then patting with charcoal or chalk dust (with the bag) to leave the lines showing on the wall. The skill is then in applying the paint to give the desired final result – no easy task…

When producing work for the bigger brands the design would be pre-determined and often issued from a central marketing department or advertising agency. For smaller, local companies or sole traders there would often have been more discretion given to the sign writer and it is on these signs that we usually find the more personal flourishes and beautiful lettering…

There are also many examples of where the design has been developed bespoke for the wall space available, for example to work around a window or to use a particularly narrow piece of wall. The tradesmen who produced the wall advertisements come from a long tradition of signwriting and lettering and their skills were passed between generations through lengthy apprenticeships.

With the decline in demand for hand painted signage there are very few learning the trade these days and without the work of companies like Colossal Media there is a risk that the skills may one day be lost forever.”

Why document Ghost Signs?

Black Cat Cigarette Ghost Sign, London

What is the significance of ghost signs?

“Beyond their relevance as examples of a craft that is being lost,” says Roberts, “ghost signs provide a window into a time when mass produced merchandise was being distributed across the country and companies needed to build brand awareness. The signs provide clues as to the types of industry that developed in particular parts of the country and areas of cities. For example the Black Cat cigarettes signs in Finsbury/Clerkenwell in London are a relic of when this was the centre of the tobacco industry in the UK. The same applies to the signs for tea and coffee brands in and around Southwark in London.”

Ghost Signs and Social Media Roberts admits it is very difficult to seek protection for the signs but at least they can be photographically preserved. There has been a lot of interest from national and specialist print, online and broadcast media. Ghost Signs has a website, Facebook page, Flickr photostream and of course they are active on Twitter too.

“While it is very difficult to seek protection for the signs, the work that HAT and I have done to preserve them photographically will allow these and other aspects of history to be explored further from now on.”

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