13 July 2021
They can often be found on the side of old buildings, hinting at an alternative, simpler life, far away from the technology and social media of today. Now Berkshire-based photographer Nicholas Brewer is on a mission to document these faded ‘Ghost Signs’ around Britain, before they disappear forever.
“There are various names that refer to the painted adverts on the side of buildings. They include, faded ads, brick ads and ghost signs. I use the latter because of its totality of their appearance and refers to a to a spirit that refuses to die,” Nicholas tells Creative Boom. “The history of the products, the artists that painted and designed the adverts and the shop keepers, are a rich source of wonder to me.”
Nicholas began his career over twenty-five years ago, carrying the cameras of the “good and the great”. Based in London, for over fifteen years he has worked as an editorial portrait photographer before switching to interiors and architecture. After completing an MA at Falmouth College of Art, his life changed forever as he decided to teach. Currently Course Leader of Photography at a college in Berkshire, he enjoys his photographic practice in his spare time.
Capturing ‘Ghost Signs’ is just one of his passions. “Painted signs have a long history, dating back as far as Roman times where the remains of political slogans and advertising for brothels adorned the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum,” he says. “Gradually fading evidence of historic advertising also exists across the world,” adds Nicholas. “Painted directly onto brick in the late 19th and early 20th century, these ‘Ghost Signs’ once promoted the wares of local and national business alike.”
For the graphic designers amongst you, you might share Nicholas’s fascination with these traditional brick ads, as they contain lettering for brands that we are still familiar with today, like that of Bovril and Hovis. You could say these are the last remaining national campaigns – ones that represent a form of advertising that has been superseded by billboards and, more recently, digital displays.
However, there’s a humbler side to these markings, as many are for smaller, local businesses – especially sole traders and family firms. “These signs form a public archive evidencing a ‘nation of shopkeepers’,” says Nicholas, “by showing us who used to trade areas without the need to look up old phone directories. As you go around your neighbourhood look up and scan the buildings and you will probably spot some. The sun will continue to fade them, digital advertising boards will hide them, and developers will destroy them.”