The image of smartly dressed youths out ‘on the town’ at Piccadilly Circus, taken by
photographer Bob Collins in the mid-1950s, is one of more than 200 works by 50 artists in
the London Nights programme running at the Museum of London until November 2018
They include film and photography of the city illuminated by limited natural and artificial
light from the late 19th century to the present day.
Today, the illuminated advertising on the north-east corner of Piccadilly Circus is seen by
around 100m people a year. It began in the 1890s when ‘sky signs’ were erected on nearby
rooftops. But in 1899, a group of London architects pressed for controls of billboards and lit
signage. The London County Council obligingly banned intermittent illumination or flashing
signs but only as a danger to traffic. By-laws proved hard to enforce and in 1904 the first
illuminated lettering above shop fascia level was erected at Mellin’s Pharmacy, probably
unauthorised. In 1908 an electric sign advertising Perrier water went up, followed by signs
with letters 2.5m high advertising Bovril meat essence and Schweppes Ginger Ale.
The illumination of Piccadilly Circus, though, is mainly due to the actions of one Mr Hutter,
he put up a lit Gordon’s Gin sign and was told to take it down, which he did. But in 1923 he
erected six signs, the largest of them 26m long and 8m high.
In 1926 the Royal Institute of British Architects called for the control of street advertising in
the interests of London’s appearance – to no avail. The lights were doused for the whole
of the Second World War and only relit in 1949, but were only otherwise switched off for
special occasions such as the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. In 2017 the Piccadilly Lights
were upgraded to a single, high resolution, 785sqm screen comprising 11.6m LEDs but
retaining Hutter’s ‘patchwork’ of six billboards. The other sectors of Piccadilly Circus remain
free of lit advertising because they are on Crown land and the Crown Commissioners have
steadfastly refused permission for anything other than small shop signs.
Born in East Ham, a working class area of London, in 1924, Collins worked as a clockmaker
until turning professional photographer in 1956 when he produced a behind-the-scenes
series of photos at the London Palladium theatre. During his career he documented many
celebrities, and leading artists such as David Hockney. He died in 2002.