Last year I was invited to contribute an article on ghostsigns to the reincarnation of the Monotype Recorder periodical. It focused on issues of protection and restoration which I have covered regularly on this blog and continue to maintain an active interest in. A couple of weeks ago I brought these issues to my first ever schools workshop and it was fascinating to hear the perspectives of young people on the topic. This and the opinions regularly voiced on my walking tours mean that the debate is far from over. If anything, it is getting more complex as time passes and the signs fade further.
For copyright reasons I can’t reproduce the full article here. Instead I have shared some selected quotes and photos of the pages themselves below. To read it in full, and a whole load of other fascinating pieces on lettering and type, order a copy of magazine on the Monotype website.
Some of the cases cited in the article include: Bile Beans in York; Gramophones in Clapham, London; Ghostsigns in Bath; The Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham; Writing on the Wall in the Netherlands. Local Listings in Hackney, London. Parts of the article also draw from my earlier blog post, Fresh Lick of Paint.
“These signs exist at an intersection of public and private interests. They are typically ‘hosted’ on the walls of private properties, and subject to the whim of building owners. However, the reactions to proposed or actual changes to their appearance demonstrate a parallel sense of public ownership.”
“Many of these signs are antiques, yet the skills involved in producing them aren’t celebrated in the same way as those of jewellers, cabinet makers and book binders.”
“Although they are often resented now, it is entirely conceivable that the revealing of a printed billboard in 50 years could provoke a similarly nostalgic response, and calls for protection, in a future world dominated by digital advertising.”
“Ghostsigns currently fall outside of approaches taken to preserving cultural heritage artefacts. They are not architectural features of note and are, ultimately, just advertising ephemera… Attempts to develop systematic approaches to protection and restoration all face the problem of defining which signs have merit: one person’s artwork is another’s eyesore.”
“The lack of formal guidance for protecting and restoring ghostsigns results in something akin to the Wild West i.e. anything goes provided you have the resources to do it.”
“The ‘restoration’ of the Sistine Chapel in the 1990s led James Beck to conclude that ‘the authentic masterpiece of Michelangelo…is now severely damaged’. Treatments that affect the natural decay of ghostsigns can be subject to similar assessments of authenticity to avoid such ‘damage’.”
“For many, the appeal of ghostsigns is their faded appearance and this is lost when they are repainted. The connection with the past is mediated through the surviving paintwork.”
“The debate about what should be done with ghostsigns will not go away. Indeed, it is important to nurture it so that opposing views can be subjected to scrutiny and discussed among those with an interest in these pieces of painted history.”
For the full article order a copy of magazine on the Monotype website.