A Life in Neon

Neon artist Andy Doig reflects on his special relationship with Brighton Palace Pier. Find out more about Andy at his talk, Bend it, Shape it, Any Way You Want it: An Interactive Talk on Neon on Thursday 29 June. You can see Andy’s work in Signs of the Seaside, which runs until 3 September.

Around 1994 I made the decision to rent a small space in Brighton and continue making a living for myself repairing and creating neon tubes.

One of my first customers was the Palace Pier, just yards away on the seafront.

In those days I would be keen to learn all aspects of my trade and if that meant shimmying up ladders, or disappearing into roof spaces, then so be it. I didn’t realise that my engineering skills were developing fast – I just loved being useful and busy making my neon tubes.

I loved especially the task of ascending the left hand tower of the Palace of Fun amongst pigeon legions, to pop up onto the ramparts above the entrance and below the colossal pier letters. Invariably, the adverse weather conditions meant the electrical signage needed constant maintenance.

It’s not well known, but in order to remake a whole or part of a tube in glass, you first need a good template. This can only be fashioned using paper, gaffer tape and a pencil. All in situ. Getting it wrong meant the glass wouldn’t fit the letter and the tube would have to be remade.

A few managers came and went – all of them wonderful mentors and deeply loyal to the traditions and heritage of the funfairs gone by. And all the time, the Palace Pier sign chattered away day and night announcing business as usual.

One day, around the time of the Nobles Family departing from ownership, I heard news of the Pier to change its name. It seemed inconceivable that I shouldn’t one day be able to own the very letters I helped look after, so I asked fervently that I should be ‘kept informed’. I wasn’t, but as luck would have it I was ultimately able to redirect the letters away from the scrapyard and certain destruction.

The letter on display in Signs of the Seaside is the R from ‘Pier’.

The letters are all steel construction; a built up outer tray, with a smaller inner tray that contains the bulbs and their wiring loom. The gap between the trays creates a channel within which sits the neon border, outlining the letter. The neon border tubes glow continuously, while the bulbs animate to spell out the words. The glass is beautiful ruby glass, hand made in batches from Stourbrige, Yorkshire. The bulb covers are a discontinued style from Italy.

The switch control for the lamps is a contemporary unit, and the neon is powered separately via a traditional iron core transformer. This boosts the 240V mains voltage up to 7,000V required to ignite the neon, with a low running current of 25mA.

Predecessors of this system (electro mechanical illuminated displays) were popular from the 1930’s onward and were used in London’s West End, Piccadilly Circus, Blackpool, Paris, Las Vegas and all across the world.

These light displays were designed to the highest standard, and all parts had to be replaceable, making them very expensive and labour intensive. To this day they symbolise good times, prosperity and freedom.



Top image courtesy Eddy Iwanczuk and Brian Imbery – Clock Tower Cameras. Exhibition images by Emma Croman.