Writing is on the wall: Britain's 'ghost signs' provide faded memories of our consumer past

Londoner Sam Roberts has been obsessively documenting Britain's brick adverts for posterity and has set up a blog to document the signs
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Sam Roberts spends his life looking up. Crossing a busy London road, the 35-year-old glances at street level for just a split second to check for cars, before his eyes flick back skyward, his gaze now fixed on a faded hand-painted sign for 'John Brown Whiskies', crumbling off the exterior wall of a second-floor flat.

Roberts is a self-confessed 'ghost sign' obsessive. It started five years ago, when he noticed an advert for 'Walker Bros Fount Pen Specialists' and 'Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen' painted on the brick façade above a shop in Stoke Newington, north-east London, near his home.

"It's just one of those twists of fate that leads to an obsession," says Roberts, showing me the sign, which he learnt must have been painted between 1924 (when the Walker brothers moved into the premises) and 1928 (when Waterman's – a national brand that would have teamed up with the brothers to appeal to customers on a local level – changed the font it used for its adverts). He has old photos from when the painting was fresh, showing a farmer walking his sheep past the shop.

Roberts, whose background is in advertising, set up a blog called 'Brick Ads' to document ghost signs, the term used to describe the remnants of adverts painted by hand directly on to the brickwork of buildings. His blog, now also called 'Ghost Signs', features works from across the country, complete with pictures and stories of how they came to be.

A sign in Allen Road, London. 'Ghost signs speak to people from the past,' says Roberts, and 'tell a story about the area and the people who once lived there' (Sam Roberts)

"Ghost signs speak to people from the past," says Roberts, and "tell a story about the area and the people who once lived there."

Around the UK, the signs tend to date from the late 19th and early 20th century, when they were used for adverts, until the 1950s, when mass-produced posters and billboards became cheaper options.

Other ghost sign devotees soon began sending Roberts their pictures and research, eventually creating the most detailed digital archive in existence on this period of advertising. Their efforts were donated to the History of Advertising Trust, with information on 1,000 sites across Britain. A series of books on ghost signs in UK cities and around the world has increased appreciation for the adverts. >

Terry Guy, founder of the art collective Monorex, says he saw painted advertising take off in New York over the past 10 years. It prompted him to set up a division of Monorex called High Rise Murals a year ago, to cope with demand in the UK from clients such as Converse.

A Hovis sign in Hewitt Road, London. The signs were used for adverts, until the 1950s, when mass-produced posters and billboards became cheaper options (Sam Roberts)

"It appeals to companies on a lot of levels," says Guy. "It has an originality that billboards don't have, it's eco-friendly (especially if we use acrylics), and it has a sense of permanence. What I like most is that it has a magical, real art element; it allows an artist to show off their trade for five days or so [as the advert is painted]."

Traditional sign painter Wayne Tanswell from Sudbury in Suffolk is also seeing a revival in demand.

"I became a sign writer in 1980, just as plastic signs were really taking off," he says. "I thought I was learning a dying trade but now, at the age of 49, I couldn't be busier."

In addition to painting signs for shops, pubs, and even Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Tanswell is one of the few people in the country to teach sign writing. Next month, he will become the first traditional sign writer in Britain to have his work shown in a gallery for an exhibition at Cambridge Art Salon.

"This year has been amazing for sign-writing," he says. "People don't want the perfection of computers any more. They want to see letters with feathered edges and the texture of brush strokes."

A sign in Graham Street, London. Roberts is aware that some people view the signs as eyesores: 'You only have to look at the number of property developers who paint over them to know that' (Sam Roberts)

Roberts, meanwhile, thinks people feel a sense of ownership over the work. "These signs exist at an intersection between public and private property," he says. "They also exist with a permanence that makes them part of the community."

But he is also aware that others see them as "eyesores", he says. "You only have to look at the number of property developers who paint over them to know that."

Does he think more should be done to protect ghost signs? Roberts is pragmatic. "I'm not going to waste my time writing endless letters to councils fighting for them to protect them. It's a much better use of my time to document them, so we all have a shared permanent record," he says.

"After all, most of these signs are more than 100 years old. They've survived pretty well by themselves so far."

Sam Roberts will speak about his work on Ghost Signs (ghostsigns.co.uk) on 20 November at St Bride Library in London