This is How Signs in London's Heyday Were Painted

Full text and accompanying images from the 'Sign Production' chapter of Ghost Signs: A London Story.

Fading painted sign on brick.
"Pring & Rose, Showcards, Ticket Writers, and Printers", Marylebone Passage W1, from Ghost Signs: A London Story by Sam Roberts and Roy Reed, published in 2021 by Isola Press.

Ghost Signs: A London Story is my book, jointly authored with Roy Reed and published in 2021 by Isola Press. There is a review inside BLAG 01, and here I am excited to share the 'Sign Production' chapter, one of seven that introduce a variety of ghost sign themes.

I have left out the specific stories of the individual signs which you can get by buying the book, either from the BLAG shop, or via the other options on the Ghostsigns site.

Ghost Signs: A London Story
The definitive contemporary book on ghost signs, those fading painted advertisements on walls. Over 250 of London’s finest examples have their stories told, accompanied by a series of introductory chapters covering themes including their production, positioning, and protection. Reviews “This is an i…

Ghost Signs: A London Story in the BLAG shop.

All photos are © Roy Reed, unless otherwise indicated.

Sign Production

Once a wall was allocated for a painted sign, the next step was commissioning a signwriter, typically sole traders or partnerships plying their trade in a particular area. For bigger brands, the signwriters may have been employed by the larger outdoor contracting firms, or the work contracted to the signwriting department of a bigger sign company. In the case of Hovis, the company developed a thriving in-house signwriting business of its own (see p. 150).

Design and Layout

One advantage of paint over print is the ability to accommodate any size and proportion of wall. Painted designs can also take account of the relative visibility of different parts of the wall from the street, and copy can be set out on multiple panels for greater impact.

The bigger brands would supply layouts based on artwork from their agencies. This applied equally to privileges (see p. 26) where the manufacturer’s logo would be tightly specified, with more flexibility given for lettering the retailer’s name. For smaller, local businesses, the signwriter often had more freedom when designing the sign.