The Changing Face of Blue Plaques

    The iconic blue plaque design has been the subject of regular experiment over the years. Plaques have been made of bronze, stone and lead, in square, round and rectangular forms, and have been finished in shades of brown, sage, terracotta and – of course – blue. Find out more below about how the plaque designs have evolved since the scheme began 150 years ago.

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    A typical brown Society of Arts plaque, erected in 1897

    A typical brown Society of Arts plaque, erected in 1897 to commemorate the Parliamentarian Sir Harry Vane in Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead

    The earliest plaques

    The earliest plaques, commissioned by the Society of Arts, were handmade by the pottery firm Minton, Hollins & Co. The inlaid or encaustic roundel had a distinctive border pattern with the letters of the name of the Society of Arts worked into the decorative design. Some were set into a painted wooden mount.

    The very earliest plaques were blue, but this was an expensive and difficult colour to produce and over the next 35 years the Society mainly used a chocolate brown background.

    One of the five surviving LCC plaques produced in 1925–6 in a ‘della Robbia’ style, featuring a colourful raised wreath border

    Canaletto’s plaque in Beak Street, Soho, is one of five surviving LCC plaques produced in 1925–6 in a ‘della Robbia’ style, featuring a colourful raised wreath border

    New designs and colours

    After taking over the scheme in 1901, the London County Council (LCC) continued to use the Minton factory, and they developed a highly decorative laurel wreath border with ribbon embellishments. Although they regularly experimented with the design and the colour, the wreathed border was consistently used up until the Second World War.

    Following a detailed report from the LCC's chief architect, blue ceramic plaques became standard from 1921 – they were felt to stand out best in the London streetscape. They were made by Doulton from 1923 to 1955. Between 1925 and 1926, Doulton made seven (of which five survive) with a colourful raised wreath border, known as a della Robbia style.

    During the LCC era, plaques were sometimes made of bronze, stone and lead, some were square or rectangular, and they varied in colour between brown, sage, terracotta and blue.

    In 1938, the modern design of the blue plaque was born, created by an unnamed student of the Central School of Arts and Crafts who was paid just four guineas for his or her trouble. This omitted the laurel wreath and ribbon border, and simplified the overall layout, allowing for a bolder spacing and arrangement of the lettering.

    The English Heritage plaque to John Nash

    The English Heritage plaque to John Nash at 66 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury. The plaque-making process produces gently raised characters and border, a notable feature of English Heritage plaques

    The last 50 years

    Since 1965, the GLC and English Heritage have continued – with only a few, very occasional exceptions – to use the standard blue roundel. Today, the name English Heritage is always inscribed on the top edge and our logo of a crenallated square is centered on the bottom edge. Our current specifications state that plaques should be 495mm (19½ inches) in diameter and 50mm (2 inches) thick.

    Subtle changes in the font and layout of the text have developed over the years, but the general formatting principles have remained the same for some time. These dictate that the name appears in capitals with the surname slightly larger, followed by life dates, profession or accomplishment, and then the commemorated figure’s relationship to the building – whether they were born, lived, worked or died there, or any combination of the above.  

    Frank Ashworth of London Plaques working on a blue plaque mould

    Frank Ashworth of London Plaques working with a casting mould for a new blue plaque

    The plaque makers

    English Heritage plaques are made by highly skilled artisan craftspeople, Frank and Sue Ashworth of London Plaques, who have been creating them since 1984. The surface is slightly domed to encourage self-cleaning, and the lettering, because it is handpiped, is slightly raised. As long as the plaques are protected during any building works, they will last for as long as the building they are attached to.

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