Thursday, 15 April 2010

save our ghostsigns....everyday frescoes of the people!


good to see jonathan glancey taking up the cause of those once ubiquitous faded signs adorning and decorating the sides of crumbling old buildings great and small, or ghostsigns as the History of Advertising Trust’s online archive evocatively call them. as he points out,

British towns and cities boasted a promiscuous palette of painted adverts like these. Standing on the tops of ladders, signwriters had a field day celebrating Bovril, Hovis, Boots and Nestle's Milk "Rich in Cream", along with Puck Matches, Bile Beans, Peterkin's Custard and any number of local crafts, trades and services.

Many signs survive, in ghostly form, on the sides of ageing buildings. I bet there's one near you. Ruthless modern development means that such "ghost signs" (as they are known by the History of Advertising Trust) are disappearing.

And yet they deserve to be saved. Here are urban folk-memories from an age before the triumph of the paste-up poster, cinema, magazine, telly and internet advertising.


back in September 2009 over at the manchester modernist society we ran a little homage to the peculiar beauty and cultural significance of these fast disappearing relics in our own city, prompted in part by the sudden passing of one particular local favourite, the much loved barkat sign on dale st, needlessly painted over by one assumes its new owners.

here’s what we said ....

Our post war murals are in effect treated no differently to the vernacular street signs adorning so much of the city like Barkat Knitwear, perhaps the boldest and most colourful example of the genre which lit up Dale St for god knows how long until being unceremoniously, criminally painted over by its new owner /property developer. Like our commissioned murals it brightened up the daily trudge to work, school or the shops come rain or shine, a landmark, an icon, an everyday fresco for the common man.

A quick perusal of flickr shows that the Barkat sign was until very recently a much loved fixture in the landscape, admired for its colour, exuberance & the rugged, battered textures of its surface; appreciated as an invaluable slice of social and cultural history; as much a historical artefact as anything dug up on an excavation, a window into the day to day life of the twentieth century city, as valuable as a wall of Latin graffiti in Pompeii. The Barkat sign straddled the boundary of Ancoats and the outer edge of Northern quarter, once the heart of the textile, food and commercial district, a bustling labyrinth of workshops, showrooms and factories. These buildings – their sides, facades, doorframes - were literally, physically, billboards for products, signposts and adverts in an era before PR and marketing departments, television ads or internet publicity campaigns. Sign writers were skilled artists and their work was detailed, meticulous and in great demand. Though the industries declined and the businesses disappeared their memories remained, faded peeling apparitions, relics and remnants of former glories.

And whilst they share many of the attributes of post war murals, the fragility of their materials, their commercial nature and inherent anonymity renders them even more vulnerable to the threat of regeneration, demolition or eradication. From modest pieces such as the Barkat to lavishly painted adverts promoting everything from universal products to specific, local services and businesses, they are both visual treasures and social/cultural documents, multiple narratives of the city past and present enriching the built environment.

Perhaps the time has come not only to challenge our notions of what art is but to broaden the boundaries of what constitutes the archaeological object. Every time we paint over, dismantle or jet clean one of these images we erase a crucial element of the fabric of the city, a little bit more of our history and yet more of our archaeological record, the story of ourselves. Furthermore, Bristol council’s decision to consult the local population on the fate of graffiti art covering the walls of its city buildings demonstrates the beginnings of a welcome reassessment of the ‘canon’, one that reflects and acknowledges the value and importance of art and design in the public realm, beyond that which is traditional or officially sanctioned. Perhaps it’s also time to include an anonymous oeuvre that paved the way for the banksys of today. These quotidian frescoes embody art, social document and historical artefact. If we can accept graffiti as art then why not sign writing and graphic design?

Reimagined as a vast open air Tate Modern minus the exhibition fee and restrictive opening hours, bursting with paintings, murals, sculpture and pop art from every era, the city becomes a living canvas, a vibrant and thought provoking backdrop to our everyday lives, reflecting like all major collections, media and styles of every period. But this is a collection that boasts artwork from the famous to the unknown, reflecting the times and cultures of the changing city, always thought provoking, visually stimulating and a pleasure to visit and inhabit.

RIP - barkat door sign, needlessly erased, 2009

9 comments:

Anthroslug said...

I live in California and routinely travel across the state for work. These "ghost signs" can be found on every back ground and many of the main streets of the state. For those of us who spend our time wandering the state, they are valuable both as landmarks and as artowkr that makes hours of monotonous driving a bit more bearable.

One thing that happens here, though, is that property owners often (if not typically) see these signs as a valuable commodity marking their business out from the crowd, and will incorporate them into their designs when they refurbish buildings. This, of course, changes their context and their meaning, but then again, so does leaving them standing when the goods or services that they advertise have long gone.

Bluestocking said...

hi anthroslug,

good to hear from you & interesting to get an overseas perspective. ghost signs as you point out do perform a variety of functions - they multi-task as topographical landmarks, cultural signifiers, historical artefacts and decorate the cityscape too. in parts of continental europe, i expect i really mean france, they seem to survive intact and visually dominate the built environment. i have often wondered if this is a happy accident or because there is actively more affection for old pernod, dubonnet and citroen garage signs combined with a concern to preserve a distinctly 'french' atmosphere and culture generally. its a complicated issue. cities by their nature evolve and shed old skins and i dont want to see them pickled in aspic in one 'official' narrative but in british cities at the moment the pace of redevelopment seems only to increase leaving no patina or carbuncles to ponder and wonder over. no archaeological traces to relish...

Anthroslug said...

In North America, the presence of these signs seems to be largely a function of the local culture. It is common to see them in smaller cities (such as where I live) where they are often intentionally preserved and pointed to as part of the local heritage. In the nearest large city, San Jose (better known to most as Silicon Valley), they have typically been removed and replaced with new signs, which seems in keeping with the desire for the "newest, fastest, shiniest thing" that permeates technology centers. The same is true for Los Angeles. By contrast, San Francisco tends to balance the old with the new, and ghost signs are as common as new advertisements in some neighborhoods. In rural areas, it is typical to find ghost signs that have existed for between up to eight decades still adorning the sides of buildings, and they are simply accepted as part of the local landscape.

By and large, most Californians seem to view these markers of our past with an acceptance at worst and an affection at best.

Sam Roberts said...

Thanks for your write up, it's a shame there aren't more examples from Manchester in the archive so if you know any photographers and locations get in touch.

BlancaMcleroy1230 said...

I love readding, and thanks for your artical. ........................................

Sam Roberts said...

In addition to the piece in the Guardian, the project was also on the One Show.

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