Last Updated on 25. May 2021
In today’s episode of Meet the Londoner we meet ghost sign expert Sam Roberts, who currently realises his book via Kickstarter.
Meet the Londoner Sam Roberts
Sam, please introduce yourself briefly to my readers
I’m Sam Roberts, a born and bred Londoner, now living in Catalonia, Spain, with my wife and two young daughters. I’ve had a varied career, but for the last seven years I’ve been running my own business which spans a number of areas in the realm of hand-painted signs. This includes my work documenting and researching old ‘ghost’ signs, as well as supporting contemporary practice through Better Letters. This consists of taking on commissions for clients, as well as providing learning opportunities for those interested in taking up the trade.
When did you start taking pictures of ghost signs?
I actually have some photos that I took in Nicaragua in 1998 of fading political murals. However, the current fascination with ghost signs started in 2006. I started noticing them and kept saying to my girlfriend (now wife) that they ought to be photographed because one day they will be gone. Eventually she said that I should stop taking about it and do it, and so I did!
What fascinates you most of them?
What originally drew me to them was the notion of a wall being used for advertising on that scale. This struck me as a lot of effort when today a billboard is easily printed and pasted, or even more recently a button is pressed to change the graphics on digital displays. I also thought that the faded appearance was intriguing, and this is what led to me wanting to document them. Finally, the messaging that is found on them often tells a very direct story. For example, the first one I ever noticed stated ‘fount pen repaired’ and that idea of repairing a pen seems alien to us almost 100 years later in our culture of disposable pens.
Which is your favourite ghost sign and why?
For a long time my answer to this question was one for Black Cat Cigarettes in London. It was set across three floors of the former Carreras tobacco factory and featured illustrations of the black cat and a packet of cigarettes. It also had the price for ten painted directly onto the wall, and included the signature of the signwriting firm, Harris the Sign King. It was recently covered over by a new building next door and, although it is still there, it can’t be seen anymore.
If I had to choose one that can still be seen then I’d probably go for the ‘fount pens repaired’ on that got me started in all this. It dates from the mid-1920s and is now listed locally by the council, which gives it a very limited form of protection. However, it’s Northern orientation, and the fact that the building owner loves it, is far more important for its survival.
Have you found all ghost signs in London?
Not at all! The co-author on our book, Roy Reed, is far more diligent in documenting the city’s ghost sign locations, including those like Black Cat that have been lost. He maintains a google map which currently has over 750 pins on it, and this generally doesn’t include fading painted street signs, or old painted shopfronts which are technically ghost signs, but are much more numerous than the commercial wall work.
About your Kickstarter Project
When did you have the idea to turn your knowledge into a book?
The idea for a book has been obvious from the start, so strictly it has been on my mind for the last 15 years. In 2015 I co-edited a more academic publication on ghost signs, but the idea for a London book was always going to be different from this. Two things always held me back. First was the varying quality and geographical limitations of my own photography. And second was the availability of time to do the necessary research and writing. The pandemic has largely helped with the second of these, and then when I called Roy Reed last November about collaborating on a book, I was delighted when he said yes.
What makes your book special?
There are three main things that, for me, make this book stand out. First is the quality of the visual material inside. As above, most of the photography is by Roy Reed and it is wonderful work, as you would expect from a former architectural photographer. Often this is supported by archival images that help to understand how the signs used to look, or other visual materials that place the signs in context.
Second are the stories we’ve been able to tell about the signs. Most of the last six months has been spent researching local, commercial, and family history so that we can enrich the images with this knowledge. This pairing of image and narrative text gives much more depth than a purely photographic publication.
Finally, although the material in the book is all from London, the entire opening section is a much broader discussion of themes within the topic. This includes chapters on how the signs were originally produced, where they are found (and why), and discussion of the thorny issues of protection, preservation, and even restoration. All of this assists the reader in gaining an understanding of the subject, before diving into the specifics of individual signs and their stories.
Did you do all the work your own?
Although I have physically been working alone on the book, it has been a very close collaboration with photographer and co-author Roy Reed. I have been responsible for writing up our joint research, and we have been assisted in this by countless individuals and organisations that have kindly responded to our enquiries about particular signs and businesses. In many ways the connections formed through the project have helped me personally cope with some aspects of the isolation created by the pandemic. I’m really hoping that we’ll all be able to celebrate together in London when the book is published!
How many ghost signs are part of your book?
We’re still in the process of doing the final edits, but its going to be around 250. This means that lots from the city won’t be included, but what we do have in the book are therefore the most visually striking and historically significant found there. Each entry has its location information given, a transcription of the text found on the sign, and then its story as told by Roy and I. We’re then going to develop Roy’s map further to accompany the book and suggest a number of walks that include signs from the book, as well as others on the route that don’t feature.
Sam Roberts about London
What’s a must-see sight in London?
Apart from ghost signs I think walking along the Southbank is probably the thing I always recommend to visitors.
3 words to describe London
Diverse, dynamic, and dirty.
Which area is best for ghost signs in London?
Stoke Newington is hard to beat for the quality and density of ghost signs.
Which ghost sign would you love to see back in its glory?
As above, I would like to see the piercing eyes of the black cat in Islington again.
The best museum in London is…?
For my area of interest it would probably have to be the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Ladbroke Grove. They have a ‘time tunnel’ that displays packaging, ephemera, toys and games from the Victorian era through to the modern day.
What have you photographed the most in London?
Ghost signs and, of those, probably the Black Cat cigarettes one.
Where do you go for a nice lunch?
I like the Menemen at Café Z Bar on Stoke Newington High Street.
Bake Street on Evering Road for coffee and brownie.
Fun stuff about Sam
Gin and Tonic or Pimm’s?
Gin and tonic, preferably with damson gin if available.
Milk in first or last?
Last, how else are you supposed to tell if you have the right amount?
Favourite Tube line?
Victoria, it’s fast and does lots of the journeys I need.
Favourite party song?
Soul Power, James Brown
Best advice you were ever given?
Don’t worry about what other people think about you because they’re too busy worrying about what other people think of them!
Ghost Signs – a London Story on Kickstarter
If you’re as fascinated by Ghost Signs as I am and want to help make the book a reality, check out Sam’s Kickstarter page. As always with crowdfunding, there are cool gifts for all who support and I’m already looking forward to my signed book and a tour with Sam.
Ghost Signs on Social Media
Who knew the term Ghost Sign before the interview? Who has taken photos in London of faded advertising walls? Who will keep their eyes open from now on and who will support Sam in realising the book? Tell us in the comments below this post.
This post is also available in: Deutsch