05 May 2021
Adam Bell takes a look back over the life of a dedicated collector
Andrew Morley was a lifelong collector, whose passion for enamel advertising signs made him a world-authority. With his passing in April 2021 at the age of 73, we bade farewell to a gentleman and a scholar, and one of the most colourful collectors of our times.
In his lifetime, Andrew built up many diverse collections, which amazed and inspired anyone lucky enough to set foot in his Newcastle upon Tyne home. I’ll never forget the first time I crossed the threshold of Andrew’s magical domain, when researching a museum exhibition about collectors in 2009. Andrew’s terraced home was an Aladdin’s cave, where every inch of wall and shelf space, and every nook and cranny was utilised to display and store his many and varied assemblages.
As Andrew gave me the grand tour on that first occasion, I was agog with wonder and amazement as each room entered, each cupboard door opened and each drawer pulled out would reveal a jewel box of treasures within, including collections of vintage board games, fireworks, bars of carbolic soap, gramophone needle tins, pen nibs, eyeglasses, marionettes, marbles, tinplate money boxes in the shape of Royal Mail pillar boxes, cigarette packets, coffee grinders, ethnographic curios…the list could go on and on, and on! Even the bathroom and the kitchen also contained their own specially themed cabinets of curiosities. But, it was Andrew’s superlative collection of advertising collectables, including tins, packaging, showcards, and particularly enamel advertising signs, that really stood out.
Andrew had been bitten early by the collecting bug, as a child in Nottingham in the mid-1950s, and he never looked back. Beginning with toy soldiers, cigarette cards and comics, Andrew’s childhood forays into collecting also included bus tickets, cheese labels and even SR toothpaste caps.
As an art student at Newcastle Uni in the mid to late-1960s, Andrew began to develop his interest in old advertising. He recalled in 2009, “I saw a kind of beauty in old advertising, lacking in the slick new commercial art of the ‘60s. At a time when increasing numbers [of enamel advertising signs] were disappearing I was on a mission to save some of them for posterity.”
Andrew was in the vanguard of collectors rescuing enamel signs from oblivion, at a time when they were disregarded and in danger of extinction. In 1978 he teamed up with a fellow enthusiast, Chris Baglee, to stage the first major exhibition of enamel advertising signs at any public museum. It ran at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery for three months, before going on a country-wide tour, on show at 20 other venues over the course of 18 months.
Andrew and Chris’ first book, ‘Street Jewellery’, was compiled and published to coincide with their exhibition. It would be the first of six books the pair would write on their specialist subject. The title of that first, seminal work, was coined by Andrew as a shorthand for the unwieldy term ‘enamelled iron advertising signs’. Andrew’s new term ‘street jewellery’ would go on to receive its own entry in the OED in 1980. In 1983 Andrew and Chris founded the Street Jewellery Society, a forum for the study and appreciation of enamel signs which attracted members from all round the globe.
Andrew’s mission to save enamel signs was nearly the end of him one day. Perched on top of a ladder, he attempted to rescue a Rowntree’s chocolates sign from a building about to be demolished. The weight of the sign almost knocked him to the ground. Andrew recalled, “I survived with only bruising to my hands and a racing pulse. Never again!”
Images courtesy of Adam Bell