Design History of the Blue Plaques Scheme

The iconic Blue Plaque design has been the subject of regular experimentation 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.

 

The earliest plaque to a man, Napoleon III, erected in blue 1867, and to a woman, Fanny Burney, erected in terracotta in 1885

The earliest plaque to a man, Napoleon III, erected in blue 1867, and to a woman, Fanny Burney, erected in terracotta in 1885

Society of Arts, 1886–1901

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.

A sage variation on the usual design, commemorating John Stuart Mill, and an example of a della Robbia plaque

A sage variation on the usual design, commemorating John Stuart Mill, and an example of a della Robbia plaque

London County Council, 1901–65

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 engaged in regular experiments with the design and the colour, the wreathed border was consistently used up until World War 2.

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 – and were made by Doulton from 1923 to 1955. Between 1925–6, 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.

An example of the simple, bold inscription of a GLC plaque, and an English Heritage plaque that presented a new challenge: Chinese characters

An example of the simple, bold inscription of a GLC plaque, and an English Heritage plaque that presented a new challenge: Chinese characters

GLC and English Heritage, 1901-present

Since 1965, the GLC and English Heritage have contined – 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 (two 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.

The current English Heritage plaques are made – as they have been since the early 1980s – by highly skilled artisan craftspeople. 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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