BY JAN GRAHAM
The allure of historic hand painted signs holds a great fascination for many, but what is it about the ghostly remains of old commercial signs that compels one to spend time documenting these faded relics? One of the inspirations behind the creation of Ghost Signs Glasgow was the London based online archive, Ghost Signs UK, Sam Roberts.
Sam has been researching and archiving ghost signs for over a decade. He has delved into the history of hand painted signs in his numerous articles and books in order to identify the enduring appeal of this lost craft and its place in public memory.
I asked Sam how he first became interested in Ghost Signs, ”I started noticing ghost signs in 2006 when I first spotted one for Walker Brothers (stationers) and Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen, in North London”, he tells me, “I was concerned that there was very little documentation or research about them at that time, and that these old advertisements could be lost.” Sam admits, “I was also fascinated that painting murals on walls was once even a viable and mainstream form of advertising”.
Sam’s own writing about the ubiquitous sight of Coca Cola wall advertisements found throughout the world, like the one in Glasgow, on Paisley Road West from the 1940s, reveals the prolific use of painted wall murals by the company to establish brand recognition. When I ask him about the most unusual one he has archived he tells me, “there is a reversed Coca-Cola sign in Portland Oregon that survived the demolition of the building it was painted on. When a building was constructed of poured concrete adjacent to it, the wall of the old building was used as a form for the concrete causing the paint to transfer as it was drying. When the original painted building was destroyed, the concrete one remained with the paint still on in reverse.
”Much of the historic signage Sam has documented over the years has been lost to property development of one form or another, either through demolition, repainting or being built next to, and as Sam points out, “in a recent survey of Islington ghost signs, I found that in this particular part of London they were disappearing at a rate of about one each year”. However, as he tells me, “we shouldn’t worry about them just yet as they are also regularly being ‘revealed’ by these very same forms of development”. A personal favourite of Sam’s, now lost to property development, was a wonderfully illustrated sign for Black Cat Cigarettes in Finsbury. Occasionally, when a sign is lost he will write a RIP post on his blog to mark their passing, seeing his archival work as a tribute to the highly skilled crafts people who produced these hand-made creations.
At Ghost Signs Glasgow we had the opportunity to take part in Alloa based signwriter, Ross Hastie’s workshop on traditional sign writing, who had many tales to tell of the long arduous hours spent honing his craft as an apprentice sign writer before starting his own company.
Running a small design business, Sam Roberts understands the time and skill involved in hand painted signage, as well as the valuable contribution to place making of a beautifully hand crafted sign. With the revival of interest in hand made signs the notion of ‘Faux’ ghost signs (painted to look faded), sets up an interesting situation in the built environment, as Sam suggests, producing a mixture of authentic and fabricated history. As he tells me “I regularly get sent ‘ghost sign’ images of signs I have produced in this style, by people who don’t realise that they are faked.”
Through his writings, archiving and ghost sign walking tours, its evident that Sam’s endeavour to create a lasting record of faded commercial murals and signs before they are finally lost is just as much about celebrating the consummate skill of the crafts people involved in their making as it is about the charm of old signs.