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January/February 2014

It’s twilight on a dank Monday in Leeds. At a desolate junction in an insalubrious part of town, Peter Kindersley is setting up his tripod. He works quickly, scoping out angles, switching lenses, conscious of the coal-black cloud parked over the parade of shops to his right. To his left, a group of men suck on cigarettes outside a pub. One approaches and explains that this corner used to be bustling with life, with businesses, with a community. Now, up ahead, the only sign of those times clings to the gable-end of a terrace—a faded advert for a long-forgotten brand, Bile Beans.

In this photo essay, Kindersley pays homage to the brick-borne advertising of a bygone age. Hand-painted adverts, now known as ghost signs, used to be found on walls all over Britain, Europe and America. But since the mass production of printed posters and billboards in the 1950s sent them into decline, and development, demolition and weathering have conspired to see to it that few survive. For these photographs, Kindersley put in some mileage to capture some of the ghost signs before they got pulled down or faded to nothing.

Kindersley, who is 35, lives in London, works as a freelance and divides his time between editorial and commercial work. He is a creature of the night. He marauds around cities under the cover of darkness, pinpointing their emptiness and eeriness. In 2009 we ran a photo essay of his, “London for Loners”, and since then he has shot similar cityscapes in Hong Kong, mainland China and Japan. He likes the juxtaposition between old and new, and often his photos will start on a street or in an alley and stretch up to a glistening skyscraper on the skyline. He seldom features people, still less cars. “I’m attracted to dereliction and empty space,” he says, “as well as buildings and light.”

To do the ghost signs justice, Kindersley wanted to put them in context and include the surrounding architecture. “I wanted the whole effect to be monumental, ghostly,” he says, “like old tombstones, bearing witness to modern urbanisation.” His signature technique, using a slow shutter speed to flood the exposure with what little light there is, adds eerie effects. It was a blowy night when he shot “Horses bought and sold” and so the trees in the background have come out woozy and hazy. Similarly, in Bradford, puffs of slow-moving cloud were dragged across the night sky by the long exposure. Sometimes it is so dark, it is hard to find something to focus on. But Kindersley is well practised and the result is a set of pictures heavy with atmosphere and, paradoxically, warm with golden light.

In their day, signs were painted up high, on prominent façades or ends of terraces. They could be found in urban, industrial areas, and sometimes in smaller towns and villages. Some doubled up as signage, but most were there solely to peddle wares to passers-by. They were popular among brewers and tobacco brands, as well as big companies selling plainer items like bread, custard or matches. Specialist signwriters painted the ads directly onto the wall. The more intricate a design, the more it would cost. Sadly, with the demise of the signs, has gone the art of creating them.

The world moved on, and the slow march of modern life means that many of the signs are ghosts of businesses past. “As I was photographing them, I kept wondering what that company had been like,” Kindersley says. The ads offer some insight. Some products are simply not relevant any more: horses have been superseded by cars; coal by gas and electricity. Poor old Bile Beans wouldn’t last two minutes in today’s brand-obsessed marketplace. Cigarette manufacturers are no longer allowed to advertise in Britain, and heavy restrictions apply to the promotion of alcohol. But a few of the names, like Hovis, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Bovril, are still with us, even if the slogans have long since changed.

These days there is growing affection for the ghost signs. Since 2010 the History of Advertising Trust has been photographing and documenting those in Britain for its online archive. So far it has more than 900 entries. Amateur photographers upload their own snaps to Instagram, Tumblr and Flickr. For the signs that remain, the writing is not quite on the wall. ~ GEORGIA GRIMOND

The right-hand panel on these former stables advertises “broughmans”. Pronounced “brooms”, these were covered carriages, popular in the 19th century with private owners and as Hackney Carriages (cabs). Trading horses, you can see from the writing under the eaves, was at some point swapped for cars

A single light on is about the only hint of modernity in this shot. Waring’s was a carpet-maker. Being a long way off the ground has kept the ad out of harm’s way, but the paint is slowly peeling away, leaving the underlying brickwork to dapple the words

Bovril, or Johnston’s Fluid Beef as it was then known, was created in 1871 as a thrifty way to feed Napoleon III’s army. Although no longer plugged on houses, it still sells 3.5m jars in Britain a year. It is more likely to be drunk by football fans or spread on toast than fed to soldiers

The irresistible Bile Beans advertised itself with slogans such as “Nightly Bile Beans keep you healthy, bright-eyed and slim”. This one in Leeds once read “Medically…the ideal tonic laxative”. The advertising was aimed at women, claiming to cure a host of ailments from biliousness, blackheads and cirrhosis to “female complaints”—whatever they may be

Two communication eras collide in a ghost sign for a television brand. This picture, taken across a busy junction, proved tricky for Peter Kindersley. He asked for a parked car to be moved out of shot and then had to wait for the traffic light to go green, so the cars would turn to streaks of light

Mark Cole, aptly enough, was a colliery agent and coal merchant, in the days when four digits were enough to make a phone call. “There was a 20th-century feel to this one,” Peter Kindersley says. “I composed the shot to draw you in towards the sign, but left in the bus stop and the women to make it feel current.” The words of the ad, on the blackened wall, are barely legible; a car, caught in the bus-stop glass, is barely visible

A jaunty promotion for Jay’s showroom, at 8 Lee High Road. In cash-strapped post-war times, Jay’s expanded by offering hire purchase, aka the never-never. For four shillings a week, the sign seductively says, you could get £40-worth of furniture