Ghost signs that keep the spirits alive

The next time you are driving along one of the old routes nationales and the truck driver in front slams on his brakes, do not assume he has just spotted a Relais Routiers restaurant. It may be he has seen a ghost... 

24 May 2017
By Michael Delahaye

In French they are called publicités peintes; in English, ‘ghost signs’. Searching out these hand-painted adverts and uploading photos on to specialist websites has become a modern form of train-spotting. And not just for bored truckers.

The practice of hand-painting adverts on walls dates back centuries; one for wine was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii.

In France it flourished through the first half of the 20th century and survived into the 1960s before printed adverts on commercial billboards displaced them. They were so prolific in the 1930s they were described as a form of highway leprosy, la lèpre des routes. The more genteel English equivalent would be ‘road rash’.

But you still see them, shadows of their former selves – typically on the gable end of a building adjacent to a major highway, in bold print and (once) vibrant colours to grab the attention of the passing motorist.

You can also find them in town and city centres, where they often make dramatic reappearances when relatively modern buildings are demolished to reveal well preserved examples covered up a few decades earlier.

The adverts, conceived in the days before the separation of drinking and driving, mostly feature apéritifs – Dubonnet, Pernod, Noilly Prat, Lillet, Suze, Byrrh, Bartissol – names redolent of l’heure du cocktail, even if some coyly describe themselves as vins toniques or even hygiéniques.

But it is not just about alcohol. Oil is another common subject – for your car (Valvoline) and, not to be confused, your hair (Brillantine Forvil).

 The men who painted them were called pignonistes – after the gable- ends, les pignons, they worked on.

You might assume that, to ensure a smooth surface, they would have first covered the wall with a coat of render. But no. Generally, they were happy to work directly on to raw brick or even on to rough stonework (the old lead-based paints bonded well with masonry).

And, because the paintings had to be touched up every two or three years, there was a decent living to be made. Often a new advert would be painted over an older one.

But it could be high risk. Philippe Célérier – a man who admits to ‘a passion for urban art’ – is one of the best-known bloggers on painted adverts (lesmurspeints.blogspot.fr) and says pignonistes were veritable acrobats: “Their basic equipment was ladders and ropes because most of the sites they were working on were not the sort where you could erect scaffolding.”

They also needed a fair degree of artistic ingenuity. Take the classic Dubonnet advert… What made it probably the best known of all the apéritif adverts is that it is a clever, cumulative play on words – a fact which reveals itself only when said aloud: Dubo (It’s lovely), Dubon (It’s good), Dubonnet (It’s Dubonnet!). This required three separate lines or boxes which the pignoniste had to fit in to the available space and shape.

Mr Célérier says there were the occasional miscalculations, such as a missing letter: “There’s a DUBONNET advert where the second N has had to be squeezed in afterwards. Similarly, there are cases of the advert for LILLET sometimes losing one of its L’s – again for want of available space.”

But are they Art? A source of nostalgia certainly, but are they really on a par with, say, Toulouse-Lautrec posters, and so worthy of conservation?

Clarisse Lorieux works in the architectural heritage section of a Parisian departmental council. A trained historian, she leads a double life: working professionally to conserve the capital’s historic buildings and monuments, while campaigning through her personal blog (www.surlescheminsdeclio.blogspot.fr) to raise public awareness of the fast-disappearing adverts.

She says: “They are our common heritage, a visual record of old brands and their slogans… showing how, between the 1920s and 1960s, we drank, ate and generally consumed… They help us to understand the evolution of our society, revealing a landscape we can no longer see.”

If public, and official, appreciation has been slow in coming, it is possibly because the adverts are still regarded as essentially commercial rather than cultural. And of course they are comparatively recent in historical terms.

France does have laws which, in theory, can be used to protect the adverts. Notably, there is the 1913 law on monuments historiques which enables structures of historical importance or artistic merit to be either listed – le classement – or at least noted – l’inscription. And there is also the Malraux Law of 1962 which designates conservation areas and gives Les architectes des bâtiments de France (ABF) power to intervene and protect.

A number of wall paintings have been saved by such laws but action, it is argued, tends to be arbitrary. There’s a problem of perception. Painted adverts don’t naturally fit into the same category as three-dimensional items of architecture. So it typically requires individuals – the owner of the building or local campaigners, for example – to bring them to the attention of the authorities and make the case for their protection as part of what the French call le patrimoine, heritage.

 It is at this point that the argument enters the field of semantics. What exactly do we mean by ‘protection’ when applied to works which are already a shadow of their former selves? It is a tricky one. To preserve them as they are, or to restore to new?

Ms Lorieux says these matters have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. “Restore only if the adverts are worthy of interest because of their location, their colours or some other quality.... But they should never be kept under a cover!”

Conservation can be expensive; full restoration even more so, running into tens of thousands of euros for a large advertisement. Such an outlay is likely to be beyond the means of the current building owners. As for the State picking up the tab, Mr Célérier thinks it unlikely: “I imagine that in the end it will be left to local councils at municipal and regional levels – as a way of attracting tourists, for example.”

 There are some heartening examples of such local initiatives. In 2004, the small commune of La Douze in Dordogne gave its market halle a make-over. On the back wall, no bigger than a pair of bath mats, were two adverts dating back to the early 1900s, promoting metal polish and chocolate respectively.

Instead of rendering over them – the easy and cheap option – the council preserved them as original features. Three years later it was duly awarded a coveted ‘regional ribbon’ in a competition sponsored by the national heritage society, La Fondation du Patrimoine.

In the end, it may be technology which offers the best of both worlds. The Light Capsules project (ghostsigns.co.uk/projects/light-capsules) uses a computer-controlled source to send beams of light on to the existing advert. The effect is riveting – not so much a restoration as a re-animation.

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