22 Feb 2022

The Donovan Bros Sign at 46 Crispin Street

The Donovan Bros sign at 46 Crispin Street is one of London’s most famous ‘ghost’ signs. We tell much of its story in the book (page 60), including the peculiar change in the colour scheme when it was repainted in the 1990s.

It has also featured before on the blog, in the shape of a piece by artist Stuart Free.

However, there were some bits that we didn’t have room for in the book, and so I’m sharing them here to add a little more to this iconic sign’s story.

Donovan Bros sign at 46 Crispin Street shown with red and green backgrounds.
Donovan Bros, 46 Crispin Street, photographed before and after the colour change. Photos: Philip Marriage (left) and Roy Reed.

Patrick Donovan Junior

One of the original five Donovan brothers that founded the business was Patrick, named after his father. He ran the original Donovan Bros shop at 46 Crispin Street, Spitalfields, until his death in 1976. Michael Donovan (who is still running the business in Orpington, Kent) kindly shared these two photos of him.

Alfred Keil Signs

I’m always partial to a ghost sign with a signwriter’s signature on it, and this one is no exception. The repainting may have got the colour scheme all wrong, but it did at least retain the signature of ‘Alfred Keil Signs’ and the phone number ‘BIS 4796’. (BIS was the code for phone numbers in Bishopsgate before the change to all-numeric dialling codes in 1966.)

Signwriter's signature for Alfred Keil Signs.
Alfred Keil Signs signature on Donovan Bros sign at 46 Crispin Street.

The first iteration of the sign was painted in around 1946, and the signature is clearly visible in the same location (bottom right of main fascia panel) on this 1970s photo from London Metropolitan Archives.

Donovan Bros sign at 46 Crispin Street.
Photo: London Metropolitan Archives 117636 (detail).

Keil’s daughter Connie shared the following with respect to her father and his work:

“A. Keil was my father of Alfred Keil Signs (based at 5 Whites Row) though his name was Angel Keil. He did most of the sign writing in the East End and the City from the 1930s to the 1950s. I think he did the Percy Dalton sign too; he was quite friendly with him and I remember he did a sign with a peanut for him.”

I was then reading one of the daily despatches from Spitalfields Life and a picture from White’s Row caught my eye. It shows portions of two signs that Keil had on his premises. On the left is the date of establishment, 1924, and directions for passers-by. On the right is the door number, 5, and the words ‘Sign & Glass Writer’.

If a signed ghost sign is gold for me, then the holy grail is signs for signwriters themselves. I was therefore delighted to come across this picture, especially given its relevance to the Donovan Bros sign at 46 Crispin Street.

Sign boards for Alfred Keil Signs at 5 White's Row.
Photo: Spitalfields Life.

Celebrity Connections

In our book we share something that Michael Donovan said in passing, namely that the Donovan Bros sign has featured in some photo shoots. These have included Naomi Campbell and Wet Wet Wet, among others, posing in front of the sign. If anyone can track down these pictures I would love to see them!

Donovan Bros sign at 46 Crispin Street.
Donovan Bros sign at 46 Crispin Street. Photo: Roy Reed from Ghost Signs: A London Story.

Donovan Bros

46 Donovan Bros 46
The noted house for Paper Bags
Alfred Keil Signs BIS 4796

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Greaseproofs & Coloured Papers.

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46 Crispin Street, London E1 6HQ