Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Renewed splendour, faded glory

There's a thought-provoking post on the Ghostsigns blog about restoration. Should these old advertisements be restored to their original bright colours or left to slowly fade away?

Sam's own view is that there are problems with restoration:
Recreating the brilliance of the colours and the messages being conveyed offers some insight into how striking these advertisements would have been when they were fresh and young. However, something is lost in doing so. The position the signs hold within individual and collective memories relates in some way to the survival of the decaying original rather than any attempt to restore it.
He prefers the idea of the skills, rather than the signs, enjoying a new lease of life. The possibility of new painted signs appearing on our streets is certainly appealing, and not as far-fetched as it might sound. There has been something of a revival in the United States.

My own view is very similar: there is something about the process of survival itself, the uneven fading, the missing edges, the intrusion of a new window, the multiple layers of a palimpsest, that gives the ghost sign its appeal. A lot of character is lost when a sign is repainted: the sense of a fragile historical survival is gone and a glossy reproduction stands in its place. However, at the same time I'm disappointed when a sign decays further or disappears. Is this asking for the impossible, then, or could we look for a way to preserve these signs without restoring them?

This sense that the aging process is part of the charm is not limited to ghost signs. Often, what we love about historic buildings is their faded glamour: hence the popularity of the wonderful Wilton's Musical Hall. Does a building's restoration to 'showroom condition' enhance the feeling of stepping into the past or destroy it?

Images (from top): unrestored ghost sign, Lewisham; repainted sign, Paris; Wilton's Music Hall.


HughB said...

How about a compromise - why not repaint the signs as anaglyph images like the old style 3d pictures ? When viewed without red/cyan glasses they would appear blurred and ghostly, but would spring to life when the specs are worn, thus satisfying all parties.

SilverTiger said...

In a very real sense, to repaint ghost signs is to destroy them. The paint cannot subsequently be removed to reveal the original as it arguably can in the case of a more solid object such as a house. The ghost sign, after all, consists only of paint.

If all we want to know is what a ghost sign looks like then it can be copied but that isn't the point, surely. Its interest resides less in the information that it conveys than in the actual paintwork and the fact that it was applied at that particular time. An over-painting destroys that uniqueness.

I think that the most we can reasonably do when a ghost sign is considered particularly important, is to protect it from interference and the weather but otherwise, albeit regretfully, to let nature and the laws of physics take their course.

HughB said...

Another question is, can you remove a layer of paint (like T-cutting a car) when you know there is a sign underneath? There is an attractive old house down the road that used to be a funeral parlour, but sadly the splendid advertisement on the side wall has been overpainted.

Anonymous said...

why not just touch them up with some color matched paint where it really needs it just a little not too much tho, and put brick sealant over the sigh to prevent flaking.