Early morning sunshine picks out fading capital letters painted onto an adjoining brick wall high over the shop front of W Nodes, funeral directors, midway between the Red Lion and Barnet College.
Closer inspection – and checking back to photographs from the 1940s – appears to indicate that the advertisement was for “Holmes and Sons, Undertakers” – and not “Nodes and Sons” as I first reported.
In response to interest in the idea of possibly of preserving and listing the advertisement, Dignity Funerals – of which W Nodes is part – says the group would be interested in restoring the advertisement if it was felt this was in keeping with the High Street and enhanced the area.
Ghost signs – also known in America as fading ads or brick ads – are left over from advertisements that were painted on the brick walls of shops, factories, offices and other commercial buildings.
They began appearing in the 1890s and were commonplace in the UK until around the 1950s when mass-produced posters and billboards became cheaper options.
Unlike the undertakers sign above Nodes, many of these early wall advertisements included images of the products they were promoting, such as fountain pens, whisky and a host of other items.
Ghost signs were originally painted with oil-based house paints. The paint that has survived the test of time most likely contains lead, which keeps it strongly attached to the masonry surface.
Despite having lived in Barnet for well over 40 years I have to admit that I had never noticed this ghost advertisement, and I am sure the same goes for many other Barnet residents.
Staff at W Nodes were unaware of the ghost sign until alerted to the campaign to publicise its existence.
Nonetheless, when freshly painted, the sign would have been an arresting sight, especially for passengers on the top deck of trams, and then buses, as they pulled into the stop outside the Red Lion before turning at the parish church.
Photographs for this stretch of the High Street show that this was a prized spot for an advertisement, and although a 1940s picture shows quite clearly that the sign was indeed for “Holmes and Sons, Undertakers”, an image from the 1930s shows the same wall was advertising “Halifax Building Society”.
The question to decide is what to do next: Is the sign worth listing as being of historical interest?
If so, should it be preserved and touched up to make it more legible?
A conservation treatment that saturated the original colours might bring back the intensity of the design and make it more visible to the naked eye.
Sam Roberts, who has been documenting ghost advertisements for some years, has been assisting in creating a digital archive of over 1,000 sites across Britain and their work has been donated to the History of Advertising Trust.
He thinks that rather than write endless letters to local councils asking them to protect ghost advertisements and other earlier examples of sign writing, the best tactic is to have them photographed and recorded.
“After all, most of these signs are more than 100 years old. They’ve survived pretty well by themselves so far,” said Mr Roberts (The Independent, 9.11.2013)