The fascination with old enamel advertising signs is one which I’ve harbored for years, having first liberated a few from derelict buildings in Manchester during my student days (and given how much pristine examples now fetch regretting not grabbing more!).
I rescued this one for “The National Cutlery Union Office No. 5” from our old allotment. It had been the improvised back of a compost heap for goodness knows how long and normally something this badly damaged would be of little interest. But the Sheffield cutlery trade was notorious for it’s secrecy and many craftsmen worked in small workshops, so the idea of them being unionised seemed quite unlikely, although there were some larger factories where belonging to a Union was probably sensible. The National Cutlery Union was not formed until 1938 and was closed (or I assume amalgamated into one of the bigger Unions) in the 1950s.
As the sign might therefore have some local historical interest, I rescued it, and it languished in our shed for years. A few months ago during a clear out I gave it a wash down, and the damage was indeed considerable. Enamel signs are made by silk-screening coloured enamel onto a flat sheet of metal and then firing it. This produces a surface which is very resilient and able to last for years on a shop or factory wall. Given the transient nature of much of our manufacturing industry these days, there isn’t a lot of call for them any more, although industrial warning notices and signs for the London Underground are still produced this way.
Their weakness is if hit, the enamel (which is powdered glass after all) will craze and flake. Being high up on a wall this is not a problem, but once removed they become prone to damage. Most redundant signs were liberated by folk who could find a good use for a large sheet of metal, the design was of no interest (one of my old bosses who on learning of my interest confessed to mixing cement on a couple of signs for years!) Clearly this particular sign too had been properly mistreated. Yet the more I looked at it the more the damage, grime and rust seemed to mirror what has happened to Sheffield’s once famous cutlery industry.
Cleaning it up as much as was prudent (the surface was quite fragile and using too much elbow grease would have removed much of the image) I discovered that it was once yellow lettering on a white background; the black was the result of years of Sheffield’s infamous air pollution and had almost totally reversed the image.
Wanting to make a print (above) based on the sign I took a series of photographs using different exposures and layered some of these together in Photoshop. The challenge was striking a balance between capturing the essence of the old sign while digitally removing some of the worst damaged letters.
Where a letter was totally obliterated in parts, I cloned sections from elsewhere and built it back up. There was then a lot of contrast control and other work to mitigate the faded sections. The yellow of the original letters survived in a few places under the grime, so I was able to add this back in a few places matching the colour (it was tempting to recolour all the letters but I’m not sure it would have been believable.)
Once I had the image pushed to where I wanted it, cropping became an issue. Showing the whole sign didn’t work. I decided to take the standard frame size I use (being a sad person I like all my prints to be the same size) and just crop to fit that, and letting the text bleed off top and bottom gave a sense of something beyond the print itself.
The only question now is what to do with the original?
Copies of the print can be purchased at the Easy On The Eye shop