Painting an ‘iconic’ ad: Bile Beans, Baz Ward

Red brick gable end of building, with painted ad on brickwork. Red phone box in foreground

Many people will recognise this painting by Baz Ward, scanned from a print I bought in the 1980s.

The Bile Beans sign is often referred to now as ‘iconic’. If it is, I guess that’s largely to do with the fact that an artist painted it 30 years ago – that is, created a representation of it on paper/canvas. The painting was exhibited in the art gallery in 1982, and later sold as a print. As the Evening Press put it, on 1 May 1982: ‘a well-known patent medicine, painted on a York gable-end, has been immortalised by an enterprising artist’.

Baz Ward depicted the authentic ad, and Andy Tuckwell captured it on camera. They and others who were around and paid attention back then saw the proper ‘ghost sign’, fully revealed when hoardings that had obscured it were taken down.

The ad on the wall was repainted in the 1980s, so the version we’ve come to know and love isn’t that ‘authentic’.

It had been heading back to a rather more weathered look, in recent years:

Painted ad on gable end, advertising Bile Beans

But now looks like this:

A lot of people are pleased about the recent repainting. Others are not. On Twitter, Daniel Benneworth-Gray asked ‘What next, a fresh coat of magnolia on the city walls?’. Replies agreed that the Bile Beans repaint was ‘Like an old friend having bad plastic surgery’ (Nick Statham) and that it had been ‘robbed of all its charm’ (thisnorthernboy), plus other comments too rude to quote.

The first repainting

Like everything in York, we’ve been here before. Back in the 80s the debate took place on the pages of the Evening Press. The Pressman’s Diary column in the Evening Press of 16 Sept 1986 reported the artist’s surprise that the ad had been repainted. ‘For it was his painting of the Bile Beans scene, exhibited with other work in the City Art Gallery in 1982, that re-established the “darkened and dirty” advert as a famous landmark in the minds of local people.’

Baz Ward said then: ‘It’s a pre-war advertisement … Bile Beans are mercifully no longer on sale, and that should have been taken into consideration by anybody wishing to restore it.’

Chris Gallagher and Ian Anderson of the York Arts Forum, who restored the ad, responded via the same column on 22 September, that ‘It was steadily becoming more invisible with paint peeling off and flaking away, and we set about the restoration at the behest of Fison’s who make bile beans … We kept faithful to the weathered condition of the paint and did not use the original ghastly ochre colour.’ They compared it to finding a valuable painting in the attic, wanting to have it restored: ‘So why not treat a rare piece of Thirties’ advertising in the same way and return it to its former glories?’

Then, as now, most people seem to have been pleased with the newly-painted sign. Then, as now, a smaller number felt it had been ruined.

Those of us who don’t like the new look ‘2012′ version of the Bile Beans ad will appreciate how Baz Ward felt after the repainting of the original and genuine version:

Vile deed (Reader’s Letter, Evening Press, 1986)

My first reaction on seeing York Arts Forum’s so-called ‘restoration’ of the Bile Beans sign in York was to reach for my brushes and ladder to replace the initial ‘B’ with a ‘V’. Better counsel prevailed.

While delighted that my opinion of their action has been published in Pressman’s Diary, I must protest that I have been misrepresented to some extent. Firstly in the piece headed Artist’s Viewpoint readers may have been given the impression that I was ‘not too happy.’ This is far from the truth. In fact I was both furious and deeply disappointed.

I regard this ‘restoration’ as thoughtless, insensitive, amateur and an act of public vandalism; neither am I ‘delighted that the sign will live on’ as I consider it to have been destroyed and replaced.

Secondly, under the heading Bilious Debate, it was stated that I wished the sign to be left as it was. This again is untrue. It was certainly in need of some remedial treatment, so that this much loved landmark did not disappear.

To keep its faded and subtle character, while stabilising and preserving it, would have been no easy task, but not impossible. I only now regret that much talk on this matter by myself and others was not turned into action long ago.

To reiterate my view stated on September 16, much of the mural’s beauty lay in its faded condition, the resultant colours and textures. It was genuine and showed the passage of time. Residents and visitors alike took pleasure in its ‘discovery’ for themselves; it engaged the eyes: now it assaults them.

If I found a Rubens or a Constable in my attic I would certainly have it restored, but with extreme care, by experts, not slap paint all over it in my own garish colours.

I must admit to being surprised at York Arts Forum’s messages of congratulation, for of the many, many people with whom I have discussed the matter since the dreadful deed, only one, the wife of a YAF member, seemed pleased with the result. All the rest have shown varying degrees of disgust, sadness and anger.

Baz Ward

Raises many questions, doesn’t it, regarding the ‘preservation’ of our history. Many people feel they’ve just witnessed the crass destruction of an original ‘ghost sign’. We haven’t – it happened a few decades back. Other people feel something has been preserved, that it’s an important part of our heritage.

I guess it is part of our heritage, this 1980s repainted version. But like all things in York, it has layers beneath.

Personally I’m just grateful to the artists and photographers who see beauty in the ordinary, and at the right time capture the soul of things, before it disappears.

– – – – –

With thanks to Baz Ward.

Elsewhere on the web

ghostsigns.co.uk includes an account by a member of the York Arts Forum involved in the 1986 restoration

and an overview on the subject of restoration: Fresh lick of paint (includes reference to the Bile Beans ad)
More of Baz Ward’s work – Staithes Gallery website
The 2012 repainting was organised by York Civic Trust and paid for by donations from members of the public. York’s iconic Bile Beans sign gets facelift (The Press)

Also on this site

There are several other pages on the Bile Beans ad.

By: Lisa @YorkStories

in categories:

3 comments

  1. Thanks so much for all this.
    I have always admired the Stubbs painted advert on the wall of their old Fossgate shop (now the Loch Fyne restaurant). I talked to the workers when the shop was being altered and they said the wall painting was going to be restored ‘cracks and all’.
    I’ve not looked up close but thankfully it’s still there. ((I love the this York Stories site – thank you so much.)

  2. The Stubbs adverts were restored, but I don’t think ‘cracks and all’ – not sure how you restore cracks!

    Am pleased you enjoy the site, thank you.

  3. DAVID NICOL, WORKINGTON

    Hello Baz, David here I still have the 4pics’ that you gave my mam(Eleanor) I got them when she died. I love them and will never part when mam died all the MITCHELL paintings had to be sold. However the largest group are in MARYPORT. MARITIME MUSEUM. Hope you read this and are in good health. I don’t know about your ma (AUNTY JOAN) AS one tends to drift apart given the circumstances. My address is still.
    34,Cockfield, drive, Workington.
    Post code. Ca14 5BL. I’m not.so good with new tech,hence the address. Although when folk ask.about the pics. I always say OH ! OUR BARRY PAINTED THOSE. So bye for now hope I here from you.YOURS. DAVID NICOL

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