This is the home of the Ghostsigns Project, a collaborative national effort to photograph, research and archive the remaining examples of hand painted wall advertising in the UK and Ireland. Here is a little bit of background and, if you find it interesting, get in touch. Photographers and researchers wishing to get involved, please click here.
What are Ghostsigns?
Ghostsigns are the typically faded remains of advertising that was once painted by hand onto the brickwork of buildings. They can be found in cities, towns and villages across the country advertising many different products and services, some familiar, some less so.
A ghostsign for Black Cat cigarettes
Where can they be found?
There are examples all across the world but outside the UK and Ireland you would be most likely to find one in France, Belgium and the USA. While these countries provide lots of examples from the past you can also find fresh signs being painted in many parts of the world including India, Mexico and countries in Africa. In more developed countries they tend to be most common in former industrial centres, although you will also find them in the smallest country villages. The key to finding them is paying attention to the buildings you pass and looking up, they are often situated high on the walls.
Map plotting over 600 signs from the project
When were they painted?
Using walls as a canvas for signs has a long history dating back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians. The preserved ruins at Pompeii have painted lettering that can still be seen today. While it is difficult to accurately date many of the ghostsigns within the project they are broadly placed in the later years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. From the 1950s onwards the economics of production swung in favour of mass printed posters and billboards. It is quite unusual to find hand painted signs produced after this time although some examples do exist.
A brothel advertised in Pompeii
How were they produced?
The signs were painted by skilled craftsmen known as signwriters, or ‘walldogs’ in some parts of the USA. While the work available has been in significant decline, some are still plying the trade. There are many different techniques employed in producing the signs and each signwriter would have carried out the task in a different way. Smaller signs could be produced freehand, sometimes using the mortar lines in the brick to measure the height of the letters. Another common method was using a spiked wheel to perforate the lines of a design into a sheet of paper. This could then be placed on the wall and patted with charcoal or chalk dust to leave an outline which could be filled in with paint. Depending on the skill of the signwriter and the budget of the client a sign could include many flourishes including illustrations and other decorative elements.
Signwriters at work
Who used them to advertise?
Businesses of all types and sizes once used hand painted advertising to publicise themselves. These included smaller local companies who may have had a sign painted on their premises, all the way up to big brands such as Gillette and Hovis who paid for signs across the country. There are also many examples of signs that have outlived the company or product being advertising, Peterkin’s Custard and Black Cat cigarettes (see picture above) for example.
Shop sign, Norwich
Photo: Keith Roberts
Why is the project happening?
Many signs have survived until today but many more have been lost due to weathering, being painted over or their host building being destroyed. The project has created a permanent record of their existence for the benefit of our own and future generations’ understanding of this important but often overlooked part of our commercial, craft and advertising history. The work of pulling this together has been co-ordinated among photographers, researchers and other volunteers via the web and is now available as an online archive hosted by the History of Advertising Trust.
Where can I find out more and get involved?
There are lots of resources available on this site including links to a number of articles and videos about the project and the subject and a reading list with short reviews. There are also links to many other sites of interest in the left and right panels of this page.
If you have photos that you would like to offer to the project or information about particular signs then click here to find out more about getting involved.