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Hunting around for Britain's ghost signs

One man\'s obsession with old-fashioned billboards is uncovering a series of time capsules of everyday life

Published: 14th September 2016 09:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th September 2016 09:04 AM   |  A+A-

Black-Cat-Cigarettes-Slider

One of the many ghost signs spotted the walls of old British Buildings and in other places(Credit: Ghostsigns official Website)

One man's obsession with old-fashioned billboards is uncovering a series of time capsules of everyday life

As the trains pull out of London Bridge station, miserable commuters can look up to a sign urging them to "take courage".

This is not a tongue-in-cheek jibe at Southern Rail, but a ghost sign, an advertisement painted over half a century ago.

It is on the side of what used to be the Anchor brewery, one of the largest in the world, which produced 330,000 barrels of beer a year. Anchor was later merged with Courage, and the sign appeared on the building in London's South Bank in around 1955.

The tag line originated during the Second World War as a rallying cry, but it was also urging drinkers to take the beer in a medicinal sense, much like "Guinness is good for you".

The sign is one of the stops on a tour of ghost signs in the area led by Sam Roberts. As part of London Design Week, he has launched an app with self-guided audio tours, powered by GPS, around the ghost signs of the South Bank.

Roberts caught the ghost sign bug after spotting one in 2006 in Stoke Newington, north-east London. "I became interested in the idea that it was gradually decaying and might not be there forever. I thought we should capture that before it goes."

He started a blog and soon became an obsessive hunter of ghost signs across London and beyond, asking readers to send in any that they came across. His favourite ghost sign is for Black Cat Cigarettes, a huge painting of a cat on the side of a mansion block in Clerkenwell. But this could soon be obscured by a large development going up. Many of these signs are "locked up like time capsules," he says, only to be revealed when a building gets knocked down.

Councils are generally indifferent to preserving them, he says, though many sit in conservation areas. "They are ephemera that have survived inadvertently, but there's not a lot of interest in preserving them or bringing people's attention to them.

"The United States has a much stronger attachment to them, perhaps because it's part of their consumerist culture, and in the Netherlands they revere them a lot more than we do here."

Ghost signs can be found across the UK, and reveal the history of an area's past industry, such as in the jewellery quarter in Birmingham. In the Thirties, homeowners - particularly in the north of England - would make money by renting the gable end of their house to advertisers.

With a background in advertising, working at big firms and on accounts such as Tesco, Roberts became interested in the history of advertising outdoors, and the ethical issues it raises. Big billboards, he says, "trespass on people's field of vision".

He now takes on commissions from advertising agencies and interior designers, many of whom ask him to recreate the weathered, old designs and create "faux" ghost signs, using the illusion of historical authenticity for marketing purposes.

"I always say instead of painting something to make it look like it's been there 100 years, paint it new and let it breathe," he says. "Have that confidence your design will go the distance, rather than bring a fake history forward."

He designed a ghost sign for the London headquarters of Coca-Cola, and used the company's archives in Atlanta to work with the original designs.

One of the stops on his tour of South Bank is such a sign, in Leathermarket Street, where a converted warehouse was turned into flats in the late Nineties. The developer claimed it was a spice warehouse, with a ghost sign for ''The Morocco Store''. But Roberts's research suggests that this was completely made up, with the sign purposefully painted to appear faded in order to market the flats.

These graphic designs are becoming in demand, appearing on people's homes and in their living rooms.

"People assume sign writing is a dying art, but actually at the moment having things hand-crafted and painted is on the up," says Roberts. "There's a backlash to the overly digitised look."

Roberts's company, Better Letters, is also holding signwriting workshops, and projecting ghost signs on to buildings as part of London Design Week. Another ghost signs tour, in Stoke Newington, will go on the app next year.

"With the advent of perfection of digital, you can lose sight of the human touch," he says. "Signwriting has minor imperfections - but through the medium you have a connection with the person that produced it."

The Ghostsigns app is available on iOS and Android.

For more information on Better Letters at the London Design Festival go to betterletters.co/ldf

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