November 29, 2013

Post Office Posters

I was clearing out a shelf from my stamp cupboard the other day and came across a few postal items I had completely forgotten about!

Way back in the mid 1990s, when I started coming to the UK much more frequently, and had just come back into stamp collecting, I made sure I got friendly with the local post mistress. As one does. I must have done something right for she soon let me handle her newly received stamp sheets and let me tear out cylinder and date of printing blocks.

Then one day, with a slightly secretive look on her face, she handed me this brown envelope, saying she wasn’t sure whether she was allowed to do so, but would I be interested in all these old A4 post office stamp posters? 

Thrilled to bits, I gladly accepted them, and now here they are back on my desk again. They’re from a period of time during which many a gorgeous stamp set was issued by Royal Mail. I particularly like the ‘Women of Achievement’ issue and the ‘Classic Cars’ issue.

But there were also more general posters, advertising several stamp books with special offers (chocolate!) and competitions. And the 1996 version of Post Early for Christmas campaign.

My lovely postmistress was stationed in rural Wales so many of the posters were either bilingual or completely in Welsh, which of course makes them even more special. 

I love the one of the 1998 stamp issues programme. Look at the dormouse on the left, that was actually a photograph used on an unadopted essay for the Endangered Species set! It has since appeared on one of the Stampex postcards, but that item is still lost somewhere on another shelf so I can’t show that to you.

It’s only a pity that the one poster with a proper Welsh subject, that of the Princess Diana set, is actually in English only. That one would have been great to have got in Welsh, but my postmistress may well have kept that one for herself!

See yous later

November 22, 2013

Hector Berlioz

Last week you found me slightly sidestepped because of Leonardo da Vinci, but the reason why I had bumped into him in the first place, was that I was on the hunt for Decaris’ stamps depicting Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust, a 1969 stamp set from Monaco.

Mephistopheles showing Faust the Goof Life

The set featured in last month’s Stamp Magazine and was described as being Decaris’ tour de force for Monaco. And it sure is. I was especially curious to see how he could translate music into stamp design. 

Minuet of the Goblins
Berlioz must have felt similar pressures when he tried to translate Goethe’s famous poem Faust into music. Although the story was already there, he never really nailed it and had to admit later on that his Faust worked better as a concert piece than as a staged work.

Faust led to Hell
And yet, the story is quite compelling. The aging Faust mourns his incapacity to achieve simple happiness and mourns his lost youth and innocence. He nearly ends his life but then the devil appears in the shape of Mephistopheles. He enchants Faust and shows him the good life. Mephistopheles also conjures up a beautiful woman. Faust and the beautiful Marguerite fall in love, but she is about to be hanged for having accidentally killed her mother. Pledging to do everything he can to save her, Faust sells his soul to the devil. They both ride into hell, thereby saving the lady who ascends to heaven.

Marguerite welcomed into Heaven
Looking at the whole set of nine stamps, what becomes clear is that Decaris seemed to have fared better than Berlioz. Decaris managed to incorporate the flow of music in his design by using the ploy of ‘surrounding’. On quite a lot of values you see the main subject surrounded by creatures. The images are created in such a way that these creatures really seem to dance around the main figure, as if a waltz was being played in the background.

The Sylphs' Ballet
It’s superbly done and I must admit I rate these stamps even higher than Decaris’ famous History of France stamp series, which is normally regarded as his masterpiece. One can only marvel at the design and amount of detail of the engravings.

The set was crowned by a tenth stamp, an airmail rate stamp, which is a direct reference to the reason why the set was issued in the first place: to mark the death centenary of the composer. Although different from the nine story stamps, the engraving of Berlioz’ bust is a very fine piece of work as well and a superb and fitting finale to the issue.

See yous later

November 15, 2013

Leonardo da Vinci

Last week I was a bit whiney when a large-ish lot of stamps came my way and they weren’t quite what I had hoped for. This week the same happened to me but now I’m jubilant!

Why? Well, the large lot I received this week included a set of stamps which were miles better than the set I was originally after. The large lot was the Monaco 1969 year set and the stamps I’m referring to are the six values issued to mark the 450th death anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci.

And the great thing is that they illustrated his drawings rather than any paintings. Now, Da Vinci’s drawings are just as beautiful (if not more) and famous as his other work. I even remember, on my very first trip to Scotland back in 1985, that I went to the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound in Edinburgh to see an exhibition of his drawings. So perfect, such beautiful colours.

The stamps stay true to their subject matter and are just as stunning as the original artwork. I’ve said before that depicting art on stamps is tricky to say the least. But if you forget about paintings and try and focus on artworks that may be reproduced better on a small format, such as drawings, then you may well be on to a winner.

And if you then decide to actually engrave those drawings then you’re basically creating an artwork of an artwork. Can’t go wrong. My favourites from the set are the following three:

The drawing of the head of a girl, dating from around 1483. Engraved by Robert Cami, on the 30c.

The Condottiere, also engraved by Cami, on the 3f.

And finally the Head of St. Madeleine, engraved by Jean Pheulpin, on the 80c. 

Many painters had sketchbooks in which they drew studies for their paintings. But for Da Vinci his sketchbook was so much more. He drew everything he noticed around him or found interesting. His subjects are as wide ranging as his curiosity and include anything from caricatures to human anatomy. For Da Vinci, drawing was really the act of trying to understand and this understanding gave him immense joy. And that’s obviously what his drawings still exude. Mona Lisa: eat your heart out!

See yous later

November 08, 2013


I must have said it before: sometimes you need to buy a bigger lot just to lay your hands on that one item you’ve been looking for. And that can be fun, because the rest of the lot may include some unexpected finds.

From now on, though, I will have to add a caveat: it may not always be that interesting what comes with the item you were looking for. And so I’m sorry to say that I was slightly underwhelmed when my Pakistan 1994 year set arrived. 

I’m afraid I found it all a bit bland. Though maybe, being inclined to lean towards more traditional philately (read: older stuff), I could have foreseen it would not be the treasure trove I somehow expected.

Many stamps were of a design or theme which could just as well have been issued anywhere else in the world. There was really only the one exception and that was the stamp issued to mark the first international festival of Islamic artisans at work.

The Pioneers of Freedom sheet could also be said to be a good home-grown thematic, but here the printing process (lithography) does not really do the designs justice. If only these had been properly engraved portraits, printed in recess, that would have made for a rather classy issue.

Some surprise then, that the stamps I was looking for in the first place should be so utterly beautiful! The definitive set introduced in 1994 depicts the Father of the Nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, against a lovely decorative background. The portrait is printed in recess, which in my book adds greatly to the design. But the subtle play with colours, too, make that this twelve-value set never looks samey.

I’ve been trying for ages to find out more about the engraver. The catalogue just mentions Z. Ali, but thankfully I came across a great Pakistan Philately website, and on there I read the engraver’s first name, which is Zulfiqar. Not that that helped much for I still have been unable to find out anything more about this Zulfiqar Ali. 

So if anyone happens to be an expert in Pakistan philately, do come to the rescue and enlighten me!

See yous later

November 01, 2013

Dundee Philatelic Weekend

Last weekend I attended the 14th Philatelic Weekend in Dundee. A social gathering of some 70+ stamp collectors, locked up in a hotel with good food, wonderful displays and little free time. Sounds scary? I can assure you it isn’t. I would easily qualify it as the most important and most enjoyable event of my bi-annual calendar.

Stamp collecting can be a bit of a solitary pastime and going to a local club isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but events such as these are so perfect in that there’s always one or two (if not more) who share your specific interests. Though I must say that this year has been a top event, and not just because of that great Isle of Man sheet that came free in the introductory pack. 

No, it was because I got acquainted with some wonderful people. And all thanks to a little, eight-page display I put up on my stamp engravers. Which was quite an impromptu display as it happened, for the night before I went to the weekend, I decided on showing something completely different than I had prepared for. 

And so I happened to show a page on the engraver Charles Gordon Yorke who, besides stamps, also engraved beautiful banknotes, such as this Canadian one from 1954. 

Through that note I got into touch with a lady who not only collected waterfalls, but had actually served on the British Stamp Advisory Committee for decades, having only retired a couple of years ago. I spent hours listening to her stories. One of the things I liked most was that she said the committee should not so much be judged by what it allowed to get through but by what it managed to stop getting through!

Another page I showed included a non-approved die by Bohumil Heinz for a stamp commemorating the Czech painter Josef Manes. The actual issue featured in a display by a lady who, as a member of the Czechoslovakian Society, had actually met the engraver Martin Cinovsky, whilst celebrating the club’s 50th anniversary. Needless to say, I hung on every word from her as well.

We also had a mini auction, and yet another lady and I were locked in battle over this particular Slania item, which included the 2002 Sweden-Thailand joint issue, plus special black print of the engraved part. I let it go to well over £20 before I decided to give up. Never a good idea of course for it kept niggling in my mind that I should have gone on. Just as well then that I’ve since found it on the internet and am now the proud owner of an identical item, and that for less money as well!

So all in all it was a fantastic weekend and I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who might be on the fence with regard to such events. Go for it, you’ll love it!

See yous later