36 years ago today, on the 8th December 1980, John Lennon was shot dead in New York. He was just 40 years old. The image above was taken on the 27th November 1966 outside a public lavatory on Soho’s Broadwick Street, and shows John playing London’s swankiest toilet attendant in a sketch for the BBC comedy show, ‘Not Only But Also‘.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
A page in Chris’s memory for donations to Prostate Cancer UK can be found here.