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Screenprinting Birmingham's Historic Ghost Signs

Photograph showing hand-painted signs for Evans & Allard and Harry Smith's

During the early half of the twentieth-century sign-writing was still a dominant form of sign production which hand-painted brick advertisements painted directly to the brick exterior of buildings. These signs were painted by a sign-painter (sometimes also called a sign-writer) using a range of different styles, techniques and lettering or imagery.

The photograph above of Hockley Hill provides an example of the sign-writers craft where we can see on the right the hand-painted signs for Evan's and Adlard and Turner and then further along Harry Smith's Ironmongers.

Sign-writing began to decline from the 1960s as other means of sign-production surpassed the hand-painted craft. Many of these old advertising signs started to disappear from our streets as fewer and fewer signs were made using this technique. As a rough estimate only around 180 old advertising signs painted flat to the brickwork of buildings survive today in Birmingham. The surviving olds signs are more popularly called 'ghost signs'.

With the support of a grant from Arts Council England, I have been able to explore the the art of sign-writing by using photograph to capture the historic signs found on some of the cities buildings. I focused on photographed around ten buildings in the Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth. The photographs provide an important opportunity to documented this aspect of Birmingham's visual culture that exemplifies the craft of sign-writing.

When I started thinking about how I might exhibit the work I felt that as sign-writing is a hand-painted craft that the images lent themselves to a hand-printed process to focus in on the extraordinary detail of the signs, buildings and streets. So I decided that I would make screenprints of each of the ten images for an exhibition opening in February 2020 called The Fading City.

I had never done any screenprinting before so this is my journey of how I experimented this summer at the Steamhouse to learn how to print.

The first thing I focused on was thinking about which images would lend themselves well to this process so that I could produce 10 monochrome screenprints for the exhibition. I had no experiencing of screenprinting before this but have been photographing signs on the streets for about 6 years.

Step 1 - Selecting photographs

Sign for Harry Smith's Ironmongers

Step 2 - Convert files in Photoshop

After selected the images I wanted to use I then used photoshop to convert these to greyscale and used the threshold function to bring out the detail of the signs, buildings and streets. Some of the photographs needed multiple layers that were then set to different threshold ranges to get the right image that would work well as a print.

Step 3 - Creating Photoshop PDF's

Before saving the final image I added registration marks to help me print all the images as A2 centred on A1 paper. The photograph for Jones and Palmer below is an example of a final image that I saved as a photoshop PDF ready to print on acetate.

Final threshold monochrome image file

Step 4: Print Images

The next stage was to print out my images on to acetates. Below is an example of the acetate for Jones and Palmer's ghost sign.

Image printed on to an acetate

Step 5: Coating screens and exposing images

This was the hard part learning to coat the screen it seems pretty straight forward but applying too much emulsion or messing up the technique as you pull up and it all goes wrong. I was working with limited screens and if I had to re-do a screen it would set me back hours or a day waiting for the screen to be re-stripped so I could start again.

110 screen ready to coat with photo emulsion

I really liked coating the screens with photo emulsion which is done in a dark room.

Step 6 - making exposures

Once the screen is dry you place the acetate over the screen to expose the image using an exposure unit. The screen is then washed quite vigorously to remove the photo emulsion and if you got it right you should be left with a screen that is ready to print once dry.

Image exposed to a screen ready to use

Step 7 - Getting ready to print

As I was using fairly large frames and wanted to keep them securely in place to get a sharp print I used the screenprinting flatbed table at the Steamhouse. I masked off the area surrounding my image and placed the paper underneath using the registration marks to get the correct position. I then applied a generous amount of black acrylic that I had mixed earlier which was then ready for use with the squeegee secured on the arm above the flatbed.

Ink applied to screen ready to make a print

Step 8: Make prints

Once ready I lowered the squeegee and turned on the flatbed vacuum that holds the paper in place. Then I genteelly flooded the screen by pulling the ink across the image and on the return pull pressed hard to make the print. The ink goes through the screen mesh and hopefully the magic happens and you have a beautiful print.

Harry Smith Ironmongers ghost sign screen-print

I have made a collection of 10 monochrome A1 screen prints that have all been printed on a cream G.F Smith paper. The collection will be exhibited in The Fading City which is was a joint show with Bristol printmaker Jemma Gunning that opened on the 2 March 2020 at The Hive, New Standard Works in the Jewellery Quarter.

The project was supported by Arts Council England and is the first work in Birmingham that explores the art and craft of sign-writing through its surviving ghost signs.

Adam Smith in front of his family's ironmongers Harry Smith in Faded City Exhibition

Selection of the other ghost signs screen-prints exhibited in the Faded City.


© Tracey Thorne
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