I first met Sam Roberts around ten years ago, when he cycled to my house in south London from Stoke Newington to discuss the possibilities of him writing professionally about his love of ghost signs. For the uninitiated, a ghost sign is a faded painted advertisment on a wall that has survived decades of weather and human intervention to continue celebrating often long-vanished businesses and products.
I can’t remember precisely what I told Sam, but I am pretty sure I would have told him it was a great idea but with numerous warnings and caveats. At the time, Sam was running a brilliant website and twitter account filled with ghost sign sightings, and he also conducted the occasional tour. He was London’s undisputed master of the subject and while there were existing books on the subjects, there was nothing particularly worth shouting about.
Sam, working with Roy Reed in a project founded by Kickstarter, has just published Ghost Signs, and as a supporter I received my copy this week. Here it is below.
It is a fantastic piece of work. One of the most depressing things is when a book takes a great subject and does it badly. Conversely, there is something truly wonderful about a book taking a subject you are interested in and treating it far better than you could ever have imagined.
So while most books on this subject would have gone photo heavy, Sam has chosen a more scholarly approach – although Roy’s photos are still fabulous. Cleverly, the hundreds of ghost signs are arranged by subject matter – food, building, clothes etc- rather than geographically, and considerable research has gone into the practicalities of how signs were made, how sites were located, what was being advertised and why some have survived. As such, it offers a fascinating insight into the advertising of the era, and a reminder that the Edwardian city must have been a spectacularly colourful time, with brightly painted adverts adorning so many walls.
All of your favourite signs are there – Peterkin custard, Brixton Bovril, Walker Bros fountain pens, Black Cat cigarettes – but the joy is in the detail and the mention of so many signs I have never even noticed or been aware of before.
It’s a terrific book. Congratulations Sam and Roy and Isola Press for their work. And make sure you buy a copy here.