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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Londoner Sam Roberts has been obsessively documenting Britain's brick adverts for posterity and has set up a blog to document the signs

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) 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) 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) 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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world