Losing London’s Old Adverts

London

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The old advertisements of London reveal a ghost map of a city long vanished. There’s already a website called ghostsigns that’s dedicated to painted wall advertisements on London buildings. Host Sam Roberts conducts walking tours and has a huge knowledge base of where all these signs are or were. He also projects light signs onto buildings to show how they looked. I love the fact that there are people like Sam who care enough to do this, and I hope you take his Bankside Walking Tour.

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Many old adverts, like the one for ‘Wounds & Sores’ in Bloomsbury, survive simply because they’re on brickwork that’s no use to anyone – they were often on ends of terraces, when it was deemed acceptable to build a row of houses and leave the last one with a blank side wall. But others are on sites property developers want, so the Bryant & May matches sign in Hammersmith is heading for the wrecking ball.

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For many modernists these things are ugly reminders of a past best forgotten, but you don’t have to be a ‘Bakelite-sniffing nostalgist’ (thank you, Matthew Sweet) to see that if we completely scour away popular history we’ll be left with a city that looks like everywhere else, a homogenised Starbucks-filled hell of glass and steel boxes and windswept plazas.

But it’s hard to argue in favour of these things. In Greenwich there used to be a huge, extraordinary wall advert for furniture polish that showed a housewife cheerfully pouring a kettle full of boiling water onto a table top. Quite how the polish protected a table from this is possibly advertising legerdemain but I loved the ad and wished I’d taken a photograph of it.

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When you look at Victorian photographs of London it’s a shock to see how rampant advertising was everywhere, on every building. Mercifully our attitude has changed, although I still think London has more outdoor advertising than most European cities.

It will be interesting to see how Piccadilly will look with the world’s biggest screen attached to it shortly. Its levels of brightness are appalling, and having to walk past fifty-foot-high footage of suppurating McJunkfood makes me depressed. Would London tourism be worth anything less if Piccadilly lost its signs and adopted a more sophisticated look? Westminster Council would be out of pocket, so it won’t happen. I began my first novel with someone slamming into – and exploding – the Coca-Cola sign on Piccadilly Circus. I’m starting to think that this was wishful thinking.

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My old doctor really did used to work just behind the Coca-Cola sign, as Arthur Bryant’s doctor does – the windows were still there but have probably been bricked up now.

15 comments on “Losing London’s Old Adverts”

  1. Roger says:

    There used to be a sign for “Bellamy’s Meat Pies” on the top floors of a building along High Street Kensington. I always wondered if this was an advertisement for the pies Pitt the Younger said he thought he could eat on his deathbed.

  2. Chris Webb says:

    If you stand near the western end of New Oxford Street and look westward, you can see an old advert painted on the wall of the building exposed by the demolition of the building on the corner for Crossrail.

    You can’t get close enough to see it properly (at least not with my less than 20:20 eyesight) but I’ll be there later today so I’ll try to get a photo.

    These days any form of advertising is very ephemeral – you might see or hear an ad on TV, radio, posters, magazines etc. only a few times over a couple of weeks and then it is stale. Painting a wall, or manufacturing one of those metal signs shows real long-term commitment. I’m also impressed by those Victorian office buildings with the name of the company carved into the masonry. They show much more confidence than a bit of Perspex held up with four screws so it can be taken down easily when the company goes bust in a couple of years!

  3. Rachel Green says:

    I loved that passage about the zipline and wished I could take it, preferably without the cola slam at the end

  4. Chris Webb says:

    Update to my post on the Oxford St ad – you can see it on Google Street View but unfortunately it’s very worn and hardly legible but appears to be for a cake company.

  5. David says:

    The remains of the neon sign advertising the old Raymond’s Review Bar are still clinging for dear life to the wall high above the corner of Walkers Court and Brewer Street.

  6. Jo W says:

    That is sad news about the coming demise of the Brymay advertisement. Hits home,somewhat.
    When we are out and about in London and elsewhere,cameras in hand,we are always looking for the unusual,particularly these fading signs. Keeping your eyes open and above first floor level can find all sorts of interesting things. (Always keeping your peripheral vision on the lookout for iffy paving stones and kerbs,of course.)
    On a different note,’im indoors is currently reading Full Dark House, after being engrossed in Rune. He said that although there were some odd deaths in that book,reading about the lift incident will probably keep him from ever using a trellis gate lift again! 😉

  7. Vivienne says:

    I passed the advertisement for jobbed horses recently: must have been on the 345 bus route, somewhere around Clapham. I was travelling from Brixton to South Ken.

  8. Chris Webb says:

    Just Tweeted a photo of the Oxford St advertisement I mentioned earlier

    https://twitter.com/CWebbPhotoUK/status/836619478494507008

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    What interests me about these signs is the craft and artistry that went in to them. They all seem typographically just perfect, height and kerning always correct, the paint coverage even, and the lettering sharp and the lines clean and crisp. Many years ago my experience of painting words on walls (no details… I was young and impressionable) inevitably had the words wandering off, the edges soft and bleeding into the background. And if you looked at the words from anything other than “the correct viewpoint” the effect of perspective was to make the words lean over or distort horribly. Was there an army of artisans who did these? Did you do an apprenticeship?

  10. Barbara Allan says:

    In York, there is a wonderful ‘bile beans’ advert – it is near Monkbar.

  11. Martin says:

    There’s another one of those Brymay signs down in Deptford/New Cross which is still pretty clear.

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    Martin, signwriting was, and still is, a very skilled craft and an apprenticeship would have lasted a number of years. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s it was taught at Technical Colleges but now replaced by the dreaded computer, vinyl and plastic.
    The signs would have been carefully designed and then ‘scaled up’ to fit the space, everything done with plumb lines to get verticals correct and spirit levels for horizontals.
    I did a 20ft high sign on a country pub about 8 years ago – the Buck Hotel at Reeth in the Yorkshire Dales – and the Landlord told me it had become a local landmark with tourists lining up to have their photos taken below it. I had to work on scaffolding but the scaffold often gets in the way. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the 60ft trawler that needed its name and number repainted the following year – I worked from a raft tethered to the side with the wash from passing vessels (Pilot boats and Coast Guard) causing me to bob about like cork with a paintbrush.

  13. Laura Humphrey says:

    on a trip to Australia I noticed that all of these old advertising displays were given protected status, I think I was in Rutherglen and there was even a town trail to look at them, they all had desciptors of the product , age etc, they truly were beautiful to look at

  14. Martin Tolley says:

    Peter, thanks for that. I once walked through Reeth, must be close to 20 years ago now. I’m due to be in the Dales this summer, and I’ll be sure to call in for a pie and a pint.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Chris W, I’ve squinted at that letter several times, trying to blank my mind and let the traces do their thing; my mind wants it to be cafe since bakeries are established while cakes aren’t but it’s really hard to tell without a telescope or binoculars.
    I’m going to have to go out and about with a camera to record the ones in our city as I’ve just realized that they won’t be around too much longer either. I wonder if the Victorian advertising was so omnipresent because so many people were learning to read and the big letters would attract them.

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