Thursday, 22 February 2018

Ghost signs (132): repainted

There's an ongoing debate about the preservation of ghost signs. Very few have any formal protection, but should they be cared for in other ways? In particular, is it good or bad to put them behind plastic, or even to repaint them altogether? 

The latter approach has been taken for a number of signs. Two Yorkshire examples are the Palace Hotel sign in Leeds, and the Bile Beans advertisement in York. 

The restoration of the Leeds sign has been carefully done. It is clearly brighter and sharper than would otherwise be the case, but it feels 'right'. While the Palace is still there, Melbourne Ales (a Leeds brewery) are gone - taken over by Tetley in 1960 - so this is a tangible link to Leeds' brewing past. 

The York sign proclaiming that Bile Beans keep you healthy, bright-eyed and slim is very popular locally. It even has its own mugs and shirts. However, it is also a restoration, and not the first, as York Stories and Ghost Signs have explored. The original sign was exposed in the 1960s, somewhat faded, when a hoarding was removed; in 1986, it was repainted by York Arts Forum at local people's request and the manufacturer Fison's expense (ironically, just as they were discontinuing the production of bile beans). In 2012, money was raised locally to pay for a second repainting; as a result, the sign is vivid and crisp - but hardly authentic. Reaction was mixed; there has even been a comma controversy

What we gain in clarity, we lose in authenticity. On the other hand, we do get a clearer sense of the original impact of these adverts. We may also have our assumptions challenged: the Leeds sign 'feels' more authentic because its colours look vintage. That's not so true of the bright yellow in York, which may nonetheless be more palatable to our tastes than the 'original ghastly ochre colour' the first restoration eschewed. It is a worthwhile reminder that just because its survivals tend to be faded and subtle, vintage wall advertising was not!

Should ghost signs be restored? It's a debate with no obvious answer. However, perhaps the last word on the restored Bile Beans sign should go to York Civic Trust director Peter Brown: 'It puts a smile on your face'.  

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