September 28, 2012


A couple of days ago I went to this philatelic friend of mine to look at his Wilding collection and was struck as by lightning when I saw that one of his first day covers was postmarked 'Machynlleth'. I tell you, it did open the gates and let memories flood in. You see, my first proper address in Britain was a romantic hillside cottage in Dolyronnen, Machynlleth!

Image courtesy of Ian Devlin

And the funny thing is that it came straight after this other guy told me one could never put together a ten page display on Wales, which I disputed by the way. So, to put him in the wrong, and to ride on the waves of a romantic past for a bit, here's a few Welsh momentoes.

Machynlleth is known for being the seat of Owain Glyndŵr's parliament. At the time I was there, Wales marked the 600th anniversary of him becoming Prince of Wales. Royal Mail declined the request for a stamp, so the Welsh made their own. They were sold at the tourist information centre in Mach and of course we all agreed that we should use those rather than any British stamps!

Image courtesy of Cinderellastamps

Glyndŵr had already been featured on a stamp, in 1974, as part of the Medieval Knights set, but rather anonimously. Since then, he has been given a bit more prominence, by being included in one of those miniature sheets from the recent Kings and Queens sets.

But, unfortunately, at that time we couldn't actually use these Glyndŵr cinderellas and the Post Office in Mach just continued selling its normal British stamps. Even when the supermarket they were in was undergoing major building work. We had to temporarily enter the Post Office bit of the building, which was kept open, through a back door in some obscure alleyway. To guide us there, there were 5ft big signs showing us where to go. It took a lot of pleading but after the building work was finished and the signs had become obsolete, I managed to get one! Can't do anything with it, but I'm attached to it, so it's folowed me wherever I've been since.

From Machynlleth, we often took the train to Harlech, my favourite coastal town in Wales. It is of course known for its impressive Harlech Castle, which featured in yet another recent series, Britain  from A to Z. 

But to be honest, much as I like this stamp, I think I prefer the slightly more nostalgic 1960s version.

During my time in Wales, the still current regional 'Emblems' were introduced, in 1999. Being a fan of Machins, which they replaced, I wasn't quite sure it would be a good thing, but once I saw them I was hooked. And I still am. Believe me, I have tried, for obvious yet rather silly reasons, to convince myself I now like the Scottish ones much better, but I've failed utterly. The Welsh ones are so beautiful and to the point, that I would still be collecting them if only they hadn't spoiled them with introducing white borders in 2003. But maybe it's for the better, now at least they're inextricably linked to my years over there.

And so we have the second class value which depicts the Welsh Leek. This leek is carved in Welsh sycamore by David Petersen.

The first class stamp depicts the Welsh Dragon. This, too, was made from Welsh material, the beastie being forged from Welsh steel by Toby and Gideon Petersen.

The Welsh Daffodil was found on the E (urope) value. It was created in Welsh slate by Ieuan Rees.

The final value, the 64p, depicted the Prince of Wales Feathers, which were crafted from Welsh gold and silver, by Rhiannon Evans.

Aren't they beautiful?! I forget about them when they're in the stockbooks for too long, but everytime I look at them, I fall in love with them all over again. Must get them out and mount them properly, preferably as a ten page display, which I will then show to anyone daring to mock "Mae hen wlad sydd yn annwyl i mi"!

See yous later

PS: Okay, I just can't let go yet, so I've started a special forum thread on Wales. Have a look here and join in by showing your Welsh philatelic material!

September 21, 2012

Coil stamps

"Do you mean to say that people actually collect these?"

That was a remark during a discussion on coil stamps and the numbers on their back I participated in some weeks ago. Must have been a postal historian! Yes, of course we collect them because they may yield valuable information. And they can make the difference between ordinary stamps and rare ones. Let me educate all you doubters.
First of all, what's the difference between these two stamps?

Exactly, one is a coil stamp, and the other is a sheet stamp, which only becomes clear when you look at the back.

Although honesty compels me to admit that the stamp without a number on its back may also be a coil stamp, because on these German coils, the number is only placed on each fifth coil stamp.

The French are more accommodating for they place a number on each and every coil stamp. And they are even more accommodating by giving the coil stamps imperforate sides.

Miles better than the British who don't do neither. (Oops, well I got that one wrong, didn't I?! See Ian's rectification in the Comments section below.)

The Swiss used to have the number preceded by a letter. Of old letters A to L were most often encountered, with 12 coils in a sheet, each column a different letter. The later letters do exist but are extremely rare, and though I've been looking for well over ten years now, I've never come across one.

Coil stamp numbers may also tell you when the coils were printed. Take a look at the Dutch Beatrix definitives for example. They've been around for a while, and during all those years, the printers Enschedé have changed the format and lettertype a number of times, making it possible to date the stamps. And from the number you may also derive how large the coils they originated from are.

75ct: type 7 from coil of 10,000, printed in 1991-2. 1g: type 7c+A from coil of 1000, printed in 1998.

Enschedé also printed the Machin coil stamps of Hong Kong, but I'm not sure whether they were printed for a period long enough to see any changes in the number. Still a bit of research to do there, which might make a nice project for the coming winter months.

Anyway, in less than five minutes I've managed to give you umpteen reasons why it does make sense to look at coil stamp numbers and not just dismiss them as being there for accounting purposes. Better get your stockbooks out and see what hidden gems you have in there!

See yous later

September 14, 2012

Buzin's Belgian Birds

"You always go on about Austria on your blog, but why don't you write about these for a change?"

is what I was told on my visit to my local club earlier this week, and the man pointed towards a beautiful Gyrfalcon stamp from Sweden which was on display that evening. Do I always go on about Austria? Well, I suppose I do a bit, but then, they have issued some beautiful stamps through the years. Anyway, I promised this man I'd lay off the Austrian stamps for a while, but unfortunately I can't write about that 1981 Gyrfalcon stamp because I don't have it. As it happened, though, I showed some bird stamps on that particular evening, from Belgium. So let me write about them then. Is that ok?

It should be, for I regard these as the best ever bird definitives, and I know I'm not alone, seeing that there's a dedicated website for these issues! The series, consisting of bird illustrations by André Buzin, started in 1985. The first issues were printed by letterpress.
1985 Hawfinch
Within a few years, however, the printing process was changed to photogravure and this has done the designs the world of good. This may well have contributed to the longevity of the set. 
1988 Eurasian Bullfinch

Next change was the advent of the euro. In 2000 and 2001 a few stamps were issued which were denominated in both Belgian francs and euros. This, by the way, was the only time when there was a slight repetition of some designs.
2000 Great Tit

From 2002, all stamps were denominated in euros only and no more repetition of designs occurred.
2002 Collared Dove

The series just kept on being added to, with many new values and quite often, existing values being reissued in a new design.
2004 House Martin and 2005 Common Wood-Pigeon

In 2010, the 25th anniversary of the series was marked with a beautiful miniature sheet which contained five stamps depicting various birds of prey and included a self-portrait of the artist. These are also the first No Value Indicator stamps of the series.
Eurasian Buzzard, Eurasian Hobby, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Northern Goshawk

With the advent of NVIs also came the 'specific purpose' stamps, such as special stamps for registered post. The first of those was the 2010 election mail stamp, issued especially for official election mail shots.
2010 Common Coot

The series is till going strong, and will hopefully remain so for a long time. Although specialisation is very much possible, with a dazzling variety in paper and gum used, the set really is a classic because of its designs, so it's worth it to just try and complete the basic set and enjoy looking at them!

See yous later

PS: For those who like their bird stamps: we have a special bird stamp forum thread as well. Check it out here.

September 07, 2012

The Penrose Annual

Have you ever heard of the Penrose Annual? Well, I must admit, neither had I, but a printer friend of mine gave me his copy of the 1954 annual to read and it turned out to be quite fascinating! The Penrose Annual was an annual of all things to do with printing and design throughout the world. New designs, new lettertypes, new printing techniques, everything was presented, researched, written about, and highly lavishly illustrated. Pure eye candy if you're into all things concerning the printing industry.

The printing of stamps was also featured quite a bit in this annual, and I suppose in others as well. This 1954 annual included an article by the then General Art Director of Enschedé, Sem Hartz. Now we may all know Sem Hartz for his many stamp designs and engravings, and indeed he does start his article by warmly defending the art and beauty of engraved stamps. The magic of how, in a single printing, 'an infinite range of colour between the lightest grey and deepest black may be realised'.

But the main part of his article deals with more experimental ways to design and produce stamps. As an example he talks about the 1947 Wilhelmina definitives of the Netherlands. 

His main point is that photographic reproduction of drawings and engravings always leads to irregular distortion. An experiment was therefore made with a three-dimensional plaster cast. Photographic reproduction of this cast showed that distortion still took place but now in a regular way, which made it irrelevant. 

The cast was photographed hundreds of time, each with different lighting effects, until a satisfactory portrait was achieved. But still, the portrait had to be enhanced, which you can see on this mid-phase version shown on this 2011 Dutch stamp.

Notice how the diadem is highlighted and how the dent at the top of the queen's head has been filled in. It's amazing to read how much work goes into a design, something which makes you appreciate your stamps so much more! And even though Hartz was in the end not too satisfied with the result, the stamp was well received and the design often compared to the Penny Black. Another British comparison comes to mind as well: in 1967, Arnold Machin would use the same technique to create his Machin portrait.

But the experimentations continued, and next up was a portrait engraved in plastic! This was at that time still a relatively new substance, and when Hartz accidentally discovered that it would cut rather easily, he started experimenting with cutting a portrait in plastic. Again different lighting effects would yield different results and in the end, the portrait again had to be enhanced by hand, but it did result in yet another modern Dutch classic: the Juliana Profile Head definitive stamp of 1953.

Absolutely fascinating stuff, so I'm of a mind to try and get some more of these annuals in, hoping to discover much more about the printing techniques used for our beloved stamps!

See yous later