Majestic Memorabilia

This week we’re featuring some highly topical items sent to us recently by Michael Burroughs of Anything Militaria.

Firstly an official pass for a motor vehicle to be in Westminster during the late Queen’s coronation in 1953. It’s impossible to see in the photos but the registration numbers of the vehicles has been pencilled in on the front: JK2204 and RV7074 for ‘Westminster Bank’.

And then there are a couple of much sought after ‘real photograph’ postcards. The one from 1939 shows the King riding in Windsor Great Park alongside the princesses. Princess Margaret has her horse on a training lead held by her father. The other portrait photograph of the Queen was taken by Dorothy Wilding at a time when this would have been really quite unusual!

Straight to the Sauce

The saucy seaside postcard is now well over a hundred years old. While its origins at the end of the nineteenth century might have been very strait laced by modern standards steadily became more daring.

By the 1930s they had become a positive craze and various characters became staples of the trade. The buxom blonde, the overbearing mother-in-law, the fat vicar, the randy old man and the drunk holidaymaker barely changed for decades but the jokes got steadily more outrageous. So much so in fact that premises were raided and hefty fines handed out to artists under the 1857 Obscenity Act. As late as 1954, Donald McGill, the most famous seaside postcard artist received a hefty fine and thousands of his cards were seized in police raids.

The censors gave up as the sixties dawned but McGill continued working right up to his death. His position as an icon in postcard history was finally cemented in 1994 when the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps featuring his designs.

A Moment’s Peace

Bought at the Market last week is this evocative photograph of two British ‘tommies’ during the Great War. Bought by a fellow dealer, Michael Burroughs of Anything Military, he was also kind enough to give us his informed view of what we can learn from this century old primary source.

The ‘Carte Postale’ on the reverse tells us it was taken in a French studio with standard props of a chair, backdrop and unlit cigarette. It’s possible that the two are related, even brothers, and the fact that their uniform pockets are bulging and that they have uncleaned boots might well mean that the pair were taking advantage of a break from the front line when this was taken. Also significant perhaps: neither of them are smiling.

The characteristic snake belt both men are wearing was part of the 1914 leather pattern equipment issued to early Territorial’s and Kitchener battalions. The standing soldier’s cap bears the badge of the Ulster Rifles along with pioneer collar badges of crossed pick and rifle. It’s therefore most likely that he was a member of the regiment’s 16th (Service) Battalion (2nd County Down) (Pioneers). They landed at Boulogne-sur-Mer as pioneer battalion for the 36th (Ulster) Division in October 1915 for service on the Western Front.

His seated companion is wearing a cap badge of the Finsbury Rifles along with the typical black buttons of a rifle regiment. An educated guess would be that he quite probably belonged to the 2/11th battalion  of that unit which moved to France in February 1917 where they served on the western front for the duration of the war.

Next week, we’ll have a look at a similar photograph from the Great War, also taken in France but featuring two soldiers from the other side of No Mans’ Lead.

Rectangular Window On The Past

A generation is growing up which may possibly never send or receive a single postcard. And yet, in 1910, 800 million were sent in Britain alone. Today this equates to every man, woman and child sending one every month for a year. And why should they? With texts, chat, photo messaging able to do so much more, so much faster and so much more cheaply, the humble postcard seems to be living on borrowed time.

And, in a way, this makes the lure of postcard collecting all the more appealing. They are a finite historical resource which will only become rarer with time – a window on a forgotten world of etiquette, Empire and seaside sauciness. London’s Postal Museum has mounted a wonderfully informative exhibition of postcard history which is well worth a visit, even an online one. Discover how Victorians communicated (relatively!) intimate messages just by the angle at which they affixed their stamps. Or how the army censored postcards home from the trenches to avoid damaging morale at home. The exhibition runs until January.

50 Years of Postcard Collecting

As a child growing up in Derby, Rod Jewell was a keen philatelist until the day he realised that the General Post Office had begun producing stamps specifically for collectors like him. Unwilling to fulfil the role of a consumer, at the age of 22 he turned to postcard collecting instead. Over half a century later, his passion now fills a whole room of his house and it is likely that the 30,000 postcards he owns are worth upwards of half a million pounds.

Although Rod initially specialised in local images of Derby and its environs, his passion has encompassed other unusual niches such as Great War propaganda cards and a very rare same day delivery postcard which was carried by hot air balloon from Manchester at the beginning of the century. A similar card can be seen below.

Pre-digital Picture Messaging

While the advent of email and social media has inevitably displaced picture postcards as most people’s default way of communicating with friends and relatives back home, interest is growing in the medium partly because of its value as a window on the past. While most collectors are primarily interested in a postcard’s rarity or the image it shows, one man is specialising in the personal micro-histories they reveal.

Through his Twitter account https://twitter.com/PastPostcard, Tom Jackson posts a classic postcard from a half century ago which shows just how much, or how little, we have changed. His book of the same name is a compendium of some of the best and is in some ways as good a social history of who we were as you are likely to read. His website is at http://postcardfromthepast.co.uk/

In the same spirit, we’ve sourced a few classics of our own….

“Lovely lunch by the seafront – although the rock buns lived up to the name.”
“Bruce Forsyth was a hoot – Glad nearly wet herself!”
“Funnily enough, we had quite a little drama of our own with a theft overnight.”

Bigger Than Christmas

While Hogmanay may be a bigger deal in Scotland, the New Year is even more important in two other countries where it’s still marked by a flood of traditional mail in the form of postcards: Japan and Russia.

Last year in Japan for example, two billion New Year’s greeting postcards were sent, an average of 15 for every person in the country. These nenga-hagaki are generally seen as a way of expressing gratitude for all those who have helped you over the past year – hence why it’s so hard to leave any friends or family out! It’s considered a bit rude not to reciprocate the gesture so you can see why people try to cover all the bases.

In Russia, of course, Christmas was banned as a religious holiday from 1929 along with Christmas trees. In 1935 though, (with Stalin’s blessing), they became ‘New Year Trees’ as an alternative celebration when Grandfather Frost brings presents to children. New Year remains the principal holiday celebration in Russia to this day with Christmas a relatively minor affair on January 7th – in line with the Russian Orthodox calendar.

Almost inevitably, the most common theme of Soviet new year postcards is a cosy view of the Kremlin. Some reference Communist achievements in the space race to help Grandfather Frost on his rounds while lots of the more colourful ones are playful depiction of rosy cheeked children or comic hares, the traditional animal of the Russian New Year.

Our final words of the year are just to say a huge thank you to all of the Market’s traders, visitors and supporters who have helped make the best of an extremely trying year. We’ll be back just as soon as we can. Happy New Year to you all!

Century Old Art Mystery Solved by Postcard

The historical value of deltiology was in the limelight last month when a 130 year old mystery was definitively settled by a researcher at the Institut Van Gogh north of Paris. The precise location of Tree Roots, the great artist’s final work, on which he was working just hours before his (likely self-inflicted) death by gunshot, is now known – and it’s all thanks to a postcard.

Tree Roots by Van Gogh (1890)

A 94 year old French woman, who lives locally, had lent her collection of historical postcards to the Institute and it was only some time after one of their researchers had browsed through them the connection was made. What was just a hunch became a certainty when Wouter van der Veen went to the scene himself and confirmed it. The Auberge Ravoux Inn, where Van Gogh spent the final two months of his life in 1890 is just 500 feet away. A plaque commemorating the significance of the spot is now in place.

A very useful overlay version of the painting and card can be seen here.

The scene today ©arthénon.
Main image: postcard Rue Daubigny together with the painting. ©arthénon.

The Past Looks Back

Postcard portraits of pre-revolutionary Imperial Russian soldiers and sailors

For all their straight-backed formality from a bygone age, there’s no denying that really looking into the eyes of someone long dead in photographs like these is still an oddly personal experience. Who was this person? What was going through their mind as they sat motionless for the photographer? And, above all, why didn’t they smile?

Any forces personnel posing in uniform but off duty today would more than likely be sporting a huge grin or at least some indication that they were pleased to be in uniform. Yet these men look at best pensive and at worst downright miserable, an interpretation which might well suit someone who is effectively a ghost.

The reasons were mainly cultural and partly technical.

In the first instance, early cameras required long exposure times and it was considerably easier to maintain a straight face than risk spoiling the frame by having to rest your face muscles. Secondly, since portrait photography was a direct descendant of portrait painting, an expressionless or inscrutable gaze was manifestly the done thing. Another reason, and possibly the one most people might guess at, is that smiling was rather frowned upon in Victorian and Edwardian society. Put simply, smiling was for idiots.

Yet theres is an even more interesting and compelling explanation for why we find the gaze of our ancestors so unsettling. While we might have every other hour of our waking lives documented in a selfie or tagged in a happy group photo with friends, photography was really quite exceptional a century ago. Many felt that it might be the only time in their lives when their likeness might be captured on film. The resulting precious photograph would immediately become a family heirloom, passed on indefinitely to kin they would never meet. This also explains the apparently macabre practice of dressing up and posing the corpse of a family member who had died unexpectedly without having previously had his or her photograph taken.

‘Haunting’ might not be the ideal word to describe the look on the monochrome faces in postcards like these. But then exactly what expression would be on your face if you knew it was one day destined to catch the eye of a casual browser in a London underground car park?

A group of French standard bearers and a rarely seen image of some WWI Turkish troops

Mystery Solved

A few days ago we asked if anyone could help to interpret this photograph of two postcards which we know refer to the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. What we didn’t yet understand was how it refers to it. Who is the bell boy on the right? The uniformed horse? Why is he laughing? What does the pump refer to? Russian Reddit users u/sUpport84 and u/agrostis came to the rescue. The explanation below is thanks to him.

First off, these two postcards are part of a set of three as it is taken from a (presumably French) triptych from the period. The whole thing is a mocking take on Japanese ambitions in the Far East.

So far as we know, Julian doesn’t have the middle postcard. This was Photoshopped in.

The bull is Russia, Japan is the frog and the bell boy / servant is Britain. As an ally of Japan, Britain was keen to use her power to curb Russian influence in the region. France, meanwhile was allied to Russia. The artist is poking fun at the pretensions of Japan by referencing the fable of the Frog and the Ox, in which the former tries to inflate itself to the size of the latter and bursts in the attempt. In the postcard the frog asks “Look, aren’t I big enough yet?”. Britain’s reply is “not yet”.

Case closed!