When is a sign not a sign? When it’s a ghostsign…

I’ve got an eye for signage and typography and without being an expert I certainly know what I like. And I love ghostsigns – those lovely, faded, handpainted signs you sometimes see on the sides of buildings. I first started noticing them a few years ago and when I joined Instagram last year I finally found a place to publish my ghostsign photos.

Here’s a ghostsign I spotted high up on the side of an old building in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, Australia a couple of years ago:

Ghostsign, Melbourne. ©Sue Walder 2013

And another seen in Uzes, France:

Ghostsign, Uzes, France. ©Sue Walder 2013

There are plenty of ghostsigns around if you look for them – you’ll find them in cities, towns and even villages up and down the UK. They were the billboards of their day but were created by highly skilled signpainters rather than print and digital technology.

I often wonder what these beautiful signs would have looked like in all their freshly-painted glory – they must have been dazzling. Certainly more aesthetically pleasing than most of the shop signage and billboards on our high streets today.

It’s also interesting to try to puzzle out the words and images and wonder about the history of the sign and the company or product being promoted.

Here’s one of my favourite ghostsigns, located on Heath Street, Hampstead in north London. It says “Established 1746 Chas B King Estate Agent Decorator Gas, Hot Water & Sanitary Engineer.” Clearly an industrious man, that Chas King. And I love the fact that the premises are still used as an estate agents today – Goldschmidt of Hampstead.

Ghostsign, Hampstead, London. ©Sue Walder 2014

A similar pleasing continuity with the past can be seen on the corner of Leicester Road and the High Road, in East Finchley, London above an off licence. You can just about make out the words “Grocery Wines, Spirits Bottled Beers Agents for Meauxs & Thornes”:

Ghostsign, East Finchley, London ©Sue Walder 2014

I recently went on a fascinating walking tour of Stoke Newington, in north London to see some wonderful ghostsigns – some of which are over a 100 years old.  The tours are run by Sam Roberts, who runs the Ghostsigns website and blog, and if you’re at all interested in signage, typography, and local history I’d strongly recommend you join one.

Stoke Newington has many fine ghostsigns due to the rapid development of the area in the 19th century. The fact that Stoke Newington village has Conservation Area status means that many of these old signs are not lost due to demolition and high rise development.  As Sam points out, these lovely palimpsests are not entirely safe as they are still at the mercy of London’s weather, pollution, and the whims of local landlords.

Here’s a couple of shots I took on the day (bad weather didn’t dampen our enthusiasm):

Cakebread & Robey ghostsign, Stoke Newington. ©Sue Walder 2015

Protected ghostsign, Stoke Newington. ©Sue Walder 2015

This beautiful ghostsign advertising fountain pen repairs by Walker Bros has been awarded Local Listed status by the Hackney Society and English Heritage – it is also the sign that first got Sam Roberts interested in the history of ghostsigns. You can just see another large (and blue) ghostsign on the left-hand side of the building.

Here are a couple I’ve spotted in my own manor – Finchley, north London:

This one – for Edw. Croft, Contractor & Removals – appears to be set within a brick frame and the handpainted letters have a lovely drop shadow. I find the modern signage around it so ugly in comparison.

Ghostsign, North Finchley. ©Sue Walder 2014

This glimpse of an old ghostsign (you can just make out the word Electric) in Finchley Central was revealed when a billboard was replaced. It is covered up again new with a new billboard.

Ghostsign, Finchley Central. ©Sue Walder 2014

And here’s one from Brighton, in West Sussex:

Ghostsign, Brighton. ©Sue Walder 2014

I particularly like this shot as it juxtaposes an old ghostsign (high up – Dyeing and Cleaning Works) with a modern handpainted sign of Jimi Hendrix and Brighton Guitars – possibly a ghostsign of the future?

And finally – a ghostsign that might not technically be a ghostsign. However, it’s definitely an old, handpainted sign that gives us a glimpse into times gone by and miraculously it’s still here, in Spitalfields, in the East End of London.  To me it’s a work of art:

If you want to spot a ghostsign, Sam Roberts recommends not just looking up but also to look back over your shoulder.

Happy ghostsign hunting!

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2 Responses to When is a sign not a sign? When it’s a ghostsign…

  1. Sam Roberts says:

    Thanks Sue, lovely write-up and some great captures that are new to me. Must have missed the one in Melbourne when I was there a couple of years ago! Keep hunting, Sam

  2. Sue says:

    Glad you like it, Sam. And thanks again for a fascinating tour of Stoke Newington! :-)

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