April 2010: Ghostsigns

Advertisements hand-painted directly onto the brickwork of buildings were once a common sight in cities, towns and villages across Britain. The rise of printed billboards initiated their decline but many still survive, often faded, clinging to the walls that host them…

These ‘Ghostsigns’ provide a window into the past and evidence of the craftsmanship that once went into their production. 

However, they are disappearing fast, often because of the effects of weathering , but largely as a result of property development and demolition.
For the last year a nationwide effort has been underway to photograph, research and archive the last survivors of this fading advertising medium.
The results of this project are now available via a series of online galleries hosted by The History of Advertising Trust, a charity committed to the preservation of our advert­ising heritage through its extensive collection and educational work.

Over 600 examples have been documented for this archive, touting many different products and services, some familiar, some less so.

Alongside advertisements for familiar brands such as Hovis, Gillette and Guinness are others for Bile Beans, Puck Matches and Peterkin’s Custard. The collections also show­case the styles and techniques employed by the craftsmen responsible for producing the signs. 

The diversity of lettering forms and illustration highlight the skill and flair that each signwriter once brought to their work, in contrast to the carbon copy posters of today.

We hope you enjoy this small set of examples from the archive. To view and search for more visit the websites below.


Sam Roberts has been researching, writing and speaking about Ghostsigns since 2006. He splits his time between project management roles at the Work Foundation and The History of Advertising Trust (voluntary) and a number of visiting lecturer posts at UK universities. Prior to this he worked within the advertising industry, holding positions at the IPA, Lowe, D&AD and iris.

The History of Advertising Trust is a registered charity (276194) and houses the largest archive of UK advertising in the world.

Sam Roberts

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