April 26, 2013

Recess Portraiture

Would it be fair to say that the art of stamp engraving is most obvious in portrait stamps? Not being an expert at all, it seems to me that to portray a human being in engraved lines must be about the hardest thing to do. Harder than engraving views or architecture or the like. Is it because one has to breathe life into the subject? Is it why so many engravers specialise in portraits, because it's the ultimate challenge?

Whatever it is, I personally rate recess portraiture the best, and when countries issue definitive portrait series printed in intaglio, they get top scores from me. Point in case: the United States of America. In 1980 they embarked on a long-running set called ‘Great Americans’. Unique because it was really the first portrait definitive set which did not focus largely on former presidents, but people from all walks of life.

Quite a large team of engravers was involved, and although this meant different styles, the stamps do work together as a set. Actually, it’s good to see how different engravers tackle the problem of engraving a face. Some, like Kenneth Kipperman for example, use quite stark lines to portray their man or woman. The 20c portraying the UN Secretariat member Ralph Bunche is a good example of that.

It’s a hard, angular portrait, but Kipperman shows he can also do a softer engraving. The portrait of scientist Rachel Carson is much softer, even though you can still see the many hard lines.

Joseph Creamer Jr’s style is unusual, I think, in that he gives his portraits a very sharply engraved outline. Note the strong hair lines on the stamp of the politician Henry Clay.

Even more remarkable is the portrait of the physicist Robert Millikan, which has a sharp line around his whole face. It seems rather odd at first but when you concentrate on the face itself, as you are almost invited to do because of the demarcation line, you see a beautiful, lifelike portrait.

Finally, Thomas Hipschen places some of his portraits against a background. President Harry S. Truman is portrayed with a background at his back only. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m very fond of that. It looks like the portrait is half cut out of a piece of paper.

I think I prefer his engraving of the author Pearl Buck, who has a background around the whole of the portrait. What I also like better on this stamp is that the background has soft, fading edges.

That is a beautiful engraving, I think, and actually one of the highlights of the first set in this series.

See yous later

April 19, 2013

Greek Mythology

The May 2013 issue of Stamp Magazine holds more fascinating features. Last week I took up its theme of tin can mail, this week I'd like to direct your attention to the great feature by Jeff Dugdale on Greek mythology.

Actually, he sort of beat me to it as I have had very vague plans to do something similar for ages! Now that I no longer have to, I'll just show part of the set which I was to have used as a basis for it: the 1935 Greek airmail set depicting various mythological scenes.

It is a beautiful recess-printed set, with printing plates prepared by de La Rue, even though the stamps themselves were printed in Greece. I was therefore glad to see that Jeff used some of the stamps from that set in his story as well. He showed the 25d value depicting Zeus, as an eagle, carrying off Ganymedes, and the 50d depicting Bellerophon on Pegasus.

On some of the stamps of the 1935 set we find Greek gods which have been mentioned in Jeff's story. Most familiar to us stamp collectors will be Hermes, the messenger of the gods. On the 10d value (which was originally printed in brown, but later reprinted in orange-red, as seen here) we find him with his familiar winged cap and winged sandals, holding his herald's staff in his hands. His female counterpart, Iris, may be found on the 2d value.

A rather stunning design is that of Helios, the Sun God, on the 1d value. Helios rides his sun chariot, drawn by solar steeds, through the sky every day. Helios does not really feature in Jeff's story, but in a way he is represented, by Apollo. Although original sources claimed Helios and Apollo to be separate gods, their stories have intertwined and they were later often considered to be one and the same.

Back in the old days, when many things in the world were unexplained, myths were a way of trying to make sense of things, however wrong they later proved to be. One such myth relates to Helios' son Phaëton, who also wanted to ride the chariot. After endless nagging, the father finally gave in and let his son ride the chariot for one day only. Of course Phaëton could not control the horses. The chariot went out of control and plunged towards the earth, scorching everything in his path. That is why, so the story tells us, Africa is all desert and its population is black.

While restudying these stamps for this blog, I suddenly noticed that all the designs had to do with flight in one way or another. Makes sense of course, it being an airmail set! And so we have Pallas Athena on the 7d value. The lady herself is not really known for flying through the sky, but in some stories she is credited with taming the winged horse Pegasus, which we've already encountered on the 50d value. The horse is also included in the Athena design, neatly conforming to the flight theme.

The top value of the set, the 100d, depicts two children on what seems to be a flying ram. They are the twins Phrixus and Helle. They were hated by their stepmother who plotted to have them killed. The children were rescued, though, by a flying ram with golden wool. Unfortunately, the girl Helle fell off mid-flight and dropped into the sea. That sea has since been known as Hellespont, in north-western Turkey, although it is now better known as the Dardanelles.

The most famous flight myth is of course that of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who may be found on the 5d stamp. It is rather sad, really, for it tells the tale of a father and son who were imprisoned and their only way of escape was to fly away. So, the father made wings of feathers and wax, for both himself and his son, warning his son not too fly too high or the sun might melt the wax.

Unfortunately, the son, in his youthful brazenness, ignored the warning, flew up high in the sky and what the father had predicted happened: the sun melt the wax, and the son plunged into the sea and drowned. The grief-stricken father named the island nearby Icaria, in memory of his son.

See yous later

April 12, 2013

Tin Can Mail

Have you read the May 2013 issue of Stamp Magazine yet? It includes a great feature on Tonga's Tin Can Mail, by Lewis Tauber. It reminded me of the few tin can items I have myself. I've dug them out to show to you.

They're not from the time covered in the feature, which deals basically with the 1930s and 1940s, when this type of mail was very much a necessity rather than a philatelic novelty. But my covers are linked to fond memories, so they're precious to me.

In fact, they're not even technically mine. They belong to Ricky, our former neighbour in Wales. He had worked as a chef in the merchant navy, sailing on luxurious ferry cruises. In the early 1970s he must have passed the Tonga island of Niuafo'ou, for he sent some tin can mail items to his family back in Britain.

Ricky came back ashore for good in the late 1990s, went all over Britain to find the perfect place to live and ended up just a couple of hundred yards from us in mid-Wales. He became a very good friend, and, when things went slightly pear-shaped for him, he had to leave his home to look after his ailing mother in Hertfordshire. Before he left, he 'loaned' me his tin can mail items which he had kept as only souvenir from his days at sea, to keep them safe.

For him this was the first step of letting go of all his worldly goods and he always said he would disappear from the earth once his mother had passed away. She has done so since, and Ricky has gone away, to Africa, without leaving any trace at all. So every time I look at these covers, I'm reminded of him and hope he's well.

As you can see, these covers date from a time that the tin can mail phenomenon had become a tourist novelty. They even have the actual date of passing the island printed at the front, and if you look closely you can see the preprinted shapes of where the stamps should go. They also include an insert explaining a bit about this traditional way of posting mail.

I have a few more covers from another cruise, again from the early 1970s although the Niuafo'ou postmark is too faint to read well. These, too, were posted at sea, and even though there's no specific mention of it, I believe these too were posted via the tin can way.

Funny how gimmicky items do become more interesting with time! And with memories like that, they're as fond to me as any other cover.

See yous later

April 05, 2013

Cylinder blocks

I will admit that I sometimes tend to collect things just because everybody else is doing so as well. Cylinder blocks for example. I like 'em well enough, but sometimes I wonder why exactly I collect them. Or what's the point of them. That's what you get when you don't research or think for yourself but just follow the pack, I suppose. My latest block, which I bought this week, brought back some of my old musings, and I thought I might as well share them with you. Maybe you can help me see things more clearly, or give me the perfect excuse to stop wasting my money.

The thing is, I'm not even that fond of the current Scottish definitives, and find the whole series a bit repetitive, with only four designs and not even any colour changes. But I do, for some reason, want to keep up with them, so I visit my local post offices when there's new stamp added to the set. And I get the cylinder blocks as well. I even tried to keep abreast of date-of-printing blocks but that really was too random and too much money, so I've already stopped doing those.

Now here's a Cartor-printed cylinder block for the 68p. Yes, it is a 68p but don't get me going on the uselessness of including it in this design for it takes perfectly trained eyes to spot and read the value.

All is well, and I really do like the positional grid. At the end of its lifetime a new cylinder was made for the black printing, named C2. Again, all clear. 

So why don't the next values, such as the recently issued 88p, continue with this C2 cylinder?

I'm presuming the black is only used for the printings on the sheet margins. To my simple mind, if that information does not change, one could use cylinder 2 for all subsequent values, and if it does change and therefore requires a new cylinder, the number of that cylinder should move up rather than revert to 1. 

And have you seen how the C1 has a different font as well? That on its own could be enough evidence to suggest that this is a new cylinder.

It reminded me of a similarly confusing episode in the printing (by Walsall this time) of the current Dutch definitives. 

The €1 value was printed with two types of W2 cylinder. The same questions applied here. 

So what's the deal here? Can anyone explain this cylinder numbering business to me? For if I can't make it out, or if it just isn't logical, I'm really not sure why I should continue bothering with them. And because I actually do like them, despite my mutterings here, I would really like a solid justification for collecting them.

See yous later