Collectors Cherish Ghost Signs as Portals Into England's Past

Ghost sign hunters in Britain find a surreal way to peep into the past by looking at old signboards that have been painted over and over again

Published: 18th April 2015 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 18th April 2015 03:35 PM   |  A+A-

John Rymer can remember falling in love with the fading, hand-painted advertisements for goods and services that speckle the walls of towns and cities.

“I looked up above the bus station and there was this great big ghost sign,” he says. “I had walked passed it hundreds of times but never noticed it. I took a photograph and thought I would look for more.”

Rymer, from the north of England, has collected thousands of ghost signs on a website that is gaining followers around the world.

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“I get that many, it’s hard to keep up. If there was a way of getting paid for it, I’d do just that,” he says.

Another enthusiast, Sam Roberts, is well on the way to turning his passion into a livelihood.

Five years ago he was commissioned by the advertising industry to catalogue Britain’s ghost signs. Then came walking tours of London that induct tourists into the city’s fading glories.

Now, Roberts helps coordinate a worldwide ghost signs fan club, writes about what came before the billboard and shares his enthusiasm with people studying marketing.

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“When you watch television or read the newspaper, you’re entering into an agreement that you’re going to get editorial content subsidised by advertising. The two come together and you agree to be exposed to the advertising,” he says. 

“Outdoor advertising is assumed consent. It trespasses on our vision. I always found that interesting.”

A particular interest, Roberts says, is the sign as a portal into the past. “You look at a sign for R. Ellis. Who was Robert Ellis? What was his family life? Why was he here? When was he trading? How did he die? You start to get all the questions about the people who exist behind the signs. And that fascinated me.”

The big issue in the ghost sign community is preservation. Some, like Rymer, are against signs being restored or touched up to recapture the brilliance of a century ago.

“Once you repaint it, it looks very nice but it’s no longer a ghost. I’ll like it in 30 years when the paint’s coming off. I like the ones you can barely read or barely see. I like them old. To be as they are,” he said.

A special pleasure is finding twins, even triplets: signs for different products and services painted one over the other.

“You can see the newest sign, perhaps 50 years old, and then you can see one that’s before that. You can make out words from each sign,” he says.

“You can pick out the brand name, but you can’t make out the rest. So you can find the original brand name and find the slogan that went with it. You can work out what it says.”

Roberts describes himself as an agnostic, neither against restoration nor advocating for it. “People want me to come out and protect them all,” he says. “I realised that the thing that’s going to decide the fate of these old signs are the people who own the buildings on which they’re painted.

“The way forward is to raise general awareness of these as historical phenomena. If you think of putting protection orders on things, you have highly subjective aesthetic judgements. One person’s artwork is another’s eyesore,” he adds.

While most people would like to keep a sign that is easy to read, there is less enthusiasm for what Roberts calls palimpsest—the layering of signs one over the other—that to the uninitiated is sometimes just a jumble of fading words and images.

The English university town of Cambridge, for example, favours protection orders and the wholesale restoration of what are now ghost signs. Butte, a mining town in the US state of Montana, is also keen on giving old signs a lick of paint.

A controversial project, in the English seaside town of Morecambe, is not restoration, not reproduction, but the creation of new signs in the style of the old master signwriters.

“But then they’re not a ghost sign, they’re just a sign,” Rymer protests.

“In 50 years they might be a ghost sign again. The appeal to me is that they fade away and fade away. It’s nostalgia definitely. The other thing is social history. They really are a window into the past. I see brands from when I was a kid,” he explains.

Roberts says the same: “What caught my eye and continues to intrigue me is that these are the faded originals, paint that was put down by someone in 1910. And through the quality of their work, and the products they were using to paint, that it has lived more than 100 years to this day.” —DPA


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