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The man who made Soho glow

For much of the 20th century the streets of Soho were awash with dazzling neon displays advertising the many clubs, adult shops and saucy cinemas which characterised the area in its seedy heyday.

Soho as seen in Softcell's 1981 video, 'Bedsitter'

Soho as seen in Softcell’s 1981 video, ‘Bedsitter’

One of the greatest neon sign makers was Chris Bracey, a born and bred Walthamstow lad who sadly died of cancer in November 2014 aged just 59.

Chris Bracey

Chris Bracey

Chris was born into the neon business on Christmas day 1954. Two years earlier, his father, Dick (a former Welsh coal miner) had established the company Electro Signs, which specialised in creating displays for fairgrounds, circuses and arcades.

At first, Chris was reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps, preferring instead to concentrate on a career in graphic design. His mind quickly changed however in 1969 after being inspired by an exhibition of the American artist, Bruce Nauman.

Neon sign by Bruce Nauman, 1970 (image: Guggenheim Collection)

Neon sign by Bruce Nauman, 1970 (image: Guggenheim Collection)

Chris’s first commission was from none other than the ‘King of Soho’ himself, Paul Raymond for whom he created a ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ sign advertising the infamous Raymond Revue Bar.

The Raymond Revue Bar (image: The Telegraph)

The Raymond Revue Bar (image: The Telegraph)

By the 1970s, Chris was responsible for making just about every sign in Soho. Despite the sleazy nature of his clients’ businesses, he viewed his work as a truly creative art-form and was greatly motivated by the city in which he worked. “London is and always will be the greatest inspiration to me,” he once said. “It gives me everything, love, hate, hell and heaven.”

A neon shrine featured in Chris Bracey's collection

A neon shrine featured in Chris Bracey’s collection

Nicknamed both the ‘Neon Man’ and the ‘Master of Glow’, Chris’s skills were soon spotted by the film industry and from the 1980s onwards he was tasked with creating displays for a host of movies, one of the earliest being Blade Runner (please click below for a clip). 

Chris’s work can also be seen in Mona Lisa, Superman III, Eyes Wide Shut, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and a number of films in the Batman and James Bond franchises.

Screenshot from 'Mona Lisa' (1986)

Screenshot from ‘Mona Lisa’ (1986)

Renowned fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney and the late Alexander McQueen also approached Chris for his expertise, and one of his more unusual designs was a large Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt, commissioned for 2013’s David Bowie exhibition at the V&A.

Chris Bracey's 'Ziggy Stardust' bolt at the V&A (image: The Mirror)

Chris Bracey’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ bolt at the V&A (image: The Mirror)

As Chris once said, “Neon is in my blood, it is my life force. I live and breath neon”. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that he was a keen collector of these ‘liquid fire’ signs and eventually amassed the largest selection outside the USA.

Panorama of 'God's own Junk Yard' (please click to enlarge)

Panorama of ‘God’s own Junk Yard’ (please click to enlarge)

Known as God’s Own Junkyard and based in Chris’s old Walthamstow studio, this dazzling collection is open to the public and is a true treat for the eyes. The gallery is also home a beer garden and the punningly named Rolling Scones Cafe.

Please scroll down to view items from the collection:

God’s Own Junkyard is run by Chris’s wife and co-worker, Linda and is open on Friday and Saturday from 11am to 9pm and on Sundays from 11am to 6pm.

God's Own Junkyard. Unit 12, Ravenswood Industrial Estate, Shernhall Street, London. E17 9HQ

God’s Own Junkyard. Unit 12, Ravenswood Industrial Estate, Shernhall Street, London. E17 9HQ

A page in Chris’s memory for donations to Prostate Cancer UK can be found here.

Gods own junk yard

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6 responses

  1. I have walked past these signs in Soho countless times, never realising that they were all the work of one man. Thanks for another interesting and informative article. If I am ever back in London, I will be sure to visit that great collection.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Cheers, Pete. Hope you manage a visit soon.

  2. I remember Soho when it was still tacky…and remember the signs too.

    Thank you for a super post on the man behind them – and behind much more too it seems. I’d like to visit god’s Own Junkyard…perhaps next year when I’m over for mother’s 100th birthday.

    I revisited Soho last year – and how dreary it is now…full of tables on pavements, overpriced menus and so few real shops left.

    And what happened to Berwick Street market?

    1. Many thanks, Helen. It is incredible to think how drastically Soho has changed in recent years; very difficult to describe to those who never witnessed it’s hedonism!

  3. […] 2. The man who made Soho glow.  […]

  4. […] exhibition showcasing over 300 objects from his long and varied career, topped off with a mighty, specially commissioned neon Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt. The exhibition broke records, becoming the museum’s fastest […]

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