Friday, 1 July 2005

Collectors of old enamel advertising signs strike oil

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by Christopher Proudlove©
The collecting world was abuzz this week as news filtered out about the sale of an Edwardian enamel advertising sign promoting "BP The British Petrol" which sold for a world auction record of £28,000.

No, not a printing error. With the auctioneer's 10 per cent buyer's premium and VAT, the 3ft 6in by 2ft 3in sign (pictured here) made a little over £25 ... per square inch!

Who said nostalgia isn't what it used to be? It has to be conceded though that the image of the 1920s racing car thundering over the finish line is both wonderfully patriotic and stunningly graphic. But what a price.

It was one of a collection of 10 early enamel and mirrored glass advertising signs taking up every inch of the walls in the hall and sitting room of a small two-bedroom bungalow.

They had been collected by a keen photographer and auction buff, who had retired to Herne Bay but had been determined to keep his collection with him.

The sign was bought by a Yorkshire collector who is clearly dedicated to his hobby. Speaking by telephone immediately after the sale, the buyer told me he already owns around 100 old enamel advertising signs but he confessed that the BP sign was easily the best he had seen and he just had to have it.

"The world of enamel signs is like football and this sign is in a league of its own. It's in near perfect condition and is a remarkable survivor when you consider it's gone through two world wars," he said.

"What was once thought of as scrap metal are now being seen as the works of art they really are. But they're painted on steel - not canvas - and you could hang it back outside and it would last a lifetime."

According to the weekly trade newspaper, the Antiques Trade Gazette which carried the story on its front page, the price appeared to be an auction record for what was described as a previously unrecorded image.

However, the record price for any advertising sign is currently $85,000, paid in 1990 for a Campbell's Soup painted sign made from tin by the Standard Advertising Company, Ohio, decorated with 52 red and white cans forming the stripes of a stylised American flag.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for either price to be beaten and whether more examples of the BP sign emerge following the publicity.

Enamel signs have become to be regarded as the jewel in the crown of British advertising in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, arresting public attention with their often outrageous entreaties to passers-by for over half a century.

Millions were produced between 1880 and 1950 but comparatively few survive today after they were made redundant by a combination of social change, the rise of magazine and later television advertising ... and the Advertising Trading Standards authority,

However, by the early 1960s, a handful of collectors began to recognise them as highly decorative works of art in their own right and soon survivors were being rescued.

It wasn't a moment too soon. Following the Second World War, when scrap metal had become a scarce commodity, tens of thousands of the signs had either been exported abroad, notably to China, or else melted down for recycling here at home.

Ironically, the nostalgic revival of interest in industrial and transport museums and steam railways, such as the one in Llangollen, also played a part and many old signs found their way back to their original locations, lending authentic atmosphere to station platforms and street settings.

The secret of the longevity of the Hovis and Virol signs we remember from our childhood is that they were made from vitreous enamel which is actually a thin layer of glass fused by heat on to the surface of the metal.

Interestingly, the technique has been around for centuries. In history, enamels were applied first on gold and then silver, copper, bronze and more latterly on iron and steel. The term is also used for the application of coloured glass applied to other glass objects.

The earliest known enamellers worked in Cyprus in the 13th century BC. Gold rings discovered in a Mycenaean tomb on the island were decorated with various vitreous coloured layers fused on to the gold.

Glittering lustrous finish

The art of enamelling was given a massive boost by the adoption of the cloisonné technique, in which strips of gold, silver, copper or brass form a network of small raised cells, or cloissons, to form the decoration of an object to which they are applied.

The various coloured enamels are then applied to the cloissons, often as a paste, and the whole is fired and polished to a glittering lustrous finish.

This contrasts with the champlevé technique, in which casting, chasing or engraving to the surface of a metal object is filled with enamels, fired and then polished flush. Saxon bowls found at Sutton Hoo are some of the finest early examples.

The Limoges area of France is famous for its champlevé enamels, while a technique developed in Italy in the 13th Century is known as basse-taille.

This required a translucent or transparent enamel to be applied over a low relief, sunken or intaglio design, usually in gold or silver.

Next came the plique-a-jour technique in which translucent or transparent enamels were fused to create a web across a network of cells, without a backing, thus making the enamel the structure of the piece.

This was the most difficult type of enamelling, but one that produced spectacular results such as those by the Art Nouveau jewellery designers Lluis Masriera and René Lalique.

The first enamelling of cast iron for such domestic products as cooking pots dates from the 18th century in Germany, while sheet iron was introduced in Sweden at the end of the 1700s.

This so-called vitreous enamelling was being mass-produced by the time of the Industrial Revolution and by the mid 19th Century enamelled steel cooking vessels were commonplace.

Glass is applied to the sheet metal either as a powder or mixed with water and fired in a furnace to temperatures that causes the glass to melt and coat the surface of the sheet. This gives a smooth surface that is hard and resistant to scratches, weather fire and chemicals.

The durability of early advertising signs, still showing the brilliance of the original colours after a hundred years, is one of the best examples of the long-term colour stability of vitreous enamel.

The only sad thing is that many, if not most, or the graphic artists whose designs are reproduced on the signs remain anonymous.

  • One of the earliest manufacturers of enamelled iron advertising signs was Salt and Co, of Selly Oak, near Birmingham.
  • Managed by Benjamin Baugh, an early pioneer of the enamelling trade, Salt operated 12 huge furnaces, and later changed the name to the Patent Enamel Company.
  • The West Midlands area become synonymous with the production of enamel signs, further factories being established in Bilston, Wolverhampton and Oldbury. London was the other main hub of manufacturing, with four large factories, including Gamier and Co, also producing millions of signs.
  • Arguably the best designed, most colourful and durable enamel advertising signs were made in Wolverhampton, a centre of enamel manufacturing since the 18th
  • Among the most important firms were Macfarlane & Robinson; Orme Evans and Chromo.
  • The Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War which prohibited the use of steel for advertising, coupled with the disappearance of smaller businesses which needed to advertise to survive in the face of competition from emerging supermarkets and stricter advertising legislation caused the relatively rapid decline of production.

Pictures show, top: Record breaker: this dramatic BP Petrol sign sold for a massive £28,000 last week, the highest price ever at auction for an enamel sign
Below, left to right:
An early 20th Century enamel advertising sign by Chromo of Wolverhampton, enamelled with the royal coat of arms and worded "Recruits are now wanted for all branches of His Majesty's Army, God Save The King". It sold for an affordable £270
"Black Cat Pure Matured Virginia Cigarettes" sold for £460
"Suter Hartmann and Rahtjen's Composition Company Ltd, 18 Billiter Street, London", used this sign depicting the British Super-Dreadnought moored in an Admiralty floating dock to promote their antifouling paints. It sold for £10,500
"There's No Tea Like Phillip's", decorated with a classical female with jardinière of flowers to side cutting the letters into stone. It measured four by three feet and sold for £2,600
An early 20th Century enamel advertising sign by Willing & Co of London, worded "Star - Largest Circulation of Any Evening Paper", sold for £180

Enlist - for £270Lucky Black Cat - £460Go tell it to the Navy£2,600 for a Phillip's cuppaAdvertising a £180 Star



Anonymous Diane Stenhouse said...

I was interestd to see the sale of the Phillips tea sign.Where was it auctioned?My gt grandfather was William Phillips the founder of of the Phillips company in Wrexham.I have a copy of the postere(from Beamish museum).

24 November 2010 at 12:40  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Diane, all the signs illustrated were sold at The Canterbury Auction Galleries

25 November 2010 at 02:45  
Anonymous Anita Appleton said...

my dad's great grandfather was the founder of the chromo enamel company in Wolverhampton. I am currently researching the Woodhead family in Wolverhampton.

23 November 2012 at 15:29  

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