Return of the Poland Street Ghost Signs

What a difference six months makes. The Poland Street double looked to be dead and buried, but through local pressure and council funding, they’re back. As I stated in my piece about the whitewashing, “in theory the signs could be brought back with the right treatment”. So here’s a look at the practical application of that theory by art restorers Plowden & Smith.

Painted signs covered by graffiti.
Graffiti in February 2021. Photo: Adam Orton.

Preparation & Cleaning

The whitewashing was to cover the graffiti shown above. As a result there were two layers of paint on top of many parts of the ghost signs. Before starting work, painting conservator Dr Rita L Amor, carried out some tests. These were done on non-critical patches of wall to ensure confidence in the final process. The selected approach involved a mixture of mechanical techniques and solvent-based solutions.

Art conservator cleaning graffiti from a wall with a painted sign underneath.
Dr Rita L Amor removing paint. Photo: Plowden & Smith.
Stages in the process of cleaning paint from a wall.
Paint removal in progress, and wall consolidation. Photos: Plowden & Smith.

Repairing & Repainting

Once the paint was successfully cleaned there were steps taken to fix structural issues with the wall. These were most evident in multiple fine cracks visible across both pieces. Once these had been filled in, the final stage was touching up parts of the original paintwork on the signs themselves. Some of this was necessary to cover areas where wall repairs had affected the original paint. It then seems that this was extended to other areas for greater consistency across the entire sign.

A single word on a painted sign before, during and after restoration.
Before, during and after restoration. Photos: Plowden & Smith.

Protecting for the Future

The final stage in the process was to apply a sacrificial layer of varnish. This is a protective layer that ensures that any future graffiti can be easily removed without affecting the restored signs beneath.

The result is the return of the signs with relatively little interference in their original appearance. I think that a lot could be learned from this for future ‘restoration’ efforts in order to avoid the worst of their kind. Bravo Dr Amor and her team at Plowden & Smith, and Westminster Council for funding the work.

To finish, here are some before and after comparisons using photos from Roy Reed, co-author of Ghost Signs: A London Story.

This is a link to other articles about ghost signs preservation from this blog.

BP Energol, before and after. Photos: Roy Reed.
Regent Remoulds, before and after. Photos: Roy Reed.
Two painted signs after restoration.
The completed pair of ghost signs after restoration. Photo: Roy Reed.

With thanks to Plowden & Smith for their support in writing up this account of the process, and to Adam Orton and Roy Reed for their photography.