Losing London’s Old Adverts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.