10 Jun 2024

Brain’s Honest Ale: Lost But Not Forgotten in Cardiff

Back in 2009/10, I was curating the first iteration of the History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive. The first phase was managed via Flickr, with the second requiring more formal authorisation for the trust to catalogue photos in their collection.

In a History Workshop interview about the experience with PhD researcher Laura Carletti, I noted that this second phase “resulted in excellent and unique images being omitted from the archive”. One of these was this brilliant ghost sign for Brain’s Honest Ale. The image, and the user, subsequently disappeared from Flickr, and it always felt like one that got away.

A fading painted sign that depicts a street scene in shades of brown and cream. The focus of this is a large wall advertisement for 'Brain's Honest Ale'. In front of this is a dog that has just had a crate of the ale itself dropped on its tail, and is yelping in pain as it looks at the advertisement.
Ghost sign for Brain’s ‘honest’ ale, photographed by John Jenkins (Lipskin on Flickr) in Cardiff.

I was reminded of the picture when I saw this post from FunHouse Radio on Mastodon. This prompted me to look up the long-lost Brain’s Honest Ale ghost sign, and a reverse image search led me to a post on the Remember Old Cardiff Facebook page. This gave me the name of the photographer—presumably also Lipskin on Flickr—with these accompanying notes:

“The picture was taken and submitted by John Jenkins. It was painted on a wall near Bute Street Bridge. The photo was taken by him in March 1978 as he knew they were about to pull all the buildings in that area down and he wanted to preserve this somehow. He didn’t how old it was or who the artist was but he had often admired it as he was driving by.”

Remember Old Cardiff Facebook Page

His admiration was fully justified. The storytelling on the sign is wonderful, with the delivery truck swinging around the corner as some of its cargo is accidentally offloaded, to the detriment of the starring dog. The animal’s pain is captured perfectly, with the somewhat ‘meta’ sign within a sign adding insult to injury. I’m not sure what is going on in the top right, but there is definitely a person, perhaps with another dog, and then what looks like a beer bottle on the building behind them.

What’s more, there was a reply to the original post with the photo below showing the sign within the Cardiff streetscape where it was once situated. Another comment states that it was revealed by something that covered, and protected, it.

View of a street from a road bridge. There is a terrace that ends just before the bridge and this has two billboards on it advertising Bostik glue and some kind of tobacco product. Painted signs for Brain's can be seen towards the top of the building and on a lower structure just behind it. There is also a ladder propped up against the taller building, and two men looking over the bridge towards it.
The ghost sign can be seen on the low wall to the left of this photo by Mike O’Sullivan.

There’s also a bonus Brain’s ghost sign at the top of the adjacent building, and perhaps even more beneath those billboards. Add to this the intrigue of the very tall ladder and, as one question is answered, many others are posed. However, after all these years, I now have some kind of closure, and I thank John Jenkins for having the foresight to capture this remarkable ghost sign before it was lost for good. RIP.

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