The Thrill of the Old

Whether it’s a bric a brac shop, a house clearance or a corner of the loft in your new house, it’s always worth a rummage to see what you might find.

In this case, it’s a stamp collection – a bit worse for wear thanks to the attention of some mice by the looks of it but once, clearly, a labour of love for someone keen on all matters philately. Whether recording the postage of Malta, former British colonies or obscure parts of distant continents the world over, the former owner took great care to record the date and perforation count of each one.

That person may no longer be here but their obsession is. We may only be the temporary curators of our collections but we’re an essential link in the chain between past and present.

The Royal Mail

Or should that be ‘male’? Along with the change to notes and coins, work is underway to mark the accession of King Charles III across our postal system.

Stamps with the Queen’s head can be used until the end of January 2023, but we’ll soon see his profile replace hers on new stamps. The question of what happens to the Royal Cipher on the 115,000 or so existing post boxes up and down the country is simple: nothing. In line with tradition, existing post boxes or those already in manufacture, will retain their original initials. Any new ones of course, will bear Charles cipher: CIIR, shown here.

However, the cipher will change soon on government buildings, military uniforms and police helmets – just as Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, Passport Office and Prison Service will become His Majesty’s.

Stamps of Defiance

Putin obviously believed he’d conquer the whole of Ukraine in a matter of a few weeks. It turns out that the Ukrainians, like their stamps, take some licking.

The inspiring stories of their resistance to Russian aggression has been celebrated in two fine stamps seen here. The first celebrated the cheeky response of the tiny garrison on Snake Island when asked to surrender by two Russian warships. The soldiers were captured but have since been returned and hailed as heroes.

Titled ‘Good evening, we’re from Ukraine”, the latest stamp records a quite incredibly common scene played out on the nightly news: a Ukrainian tractor towing away an abandoned (or even stolen!) Russian tank.

Both designs were the result of open competitions and are available to foreign collectors through their website.

Right Royal Stamp of Approval

While the four day event – widely referred to on social media as (I kid you not) ‘platty joobs’ – is now at an end, it’s back to business as usual for us all. But just in case you want a souvenir so official it bears the image of HM Queen herself, Royal Mail have you covered.

Still available at their online shop is this commemorative set of 8 stamps depicting her at various points in her record breaking 70 year reign. From her tour of the US in 1957 to her tour of MI5 in 2020, they are a fitting tribute to her active role as the nation’s monarch and a much better souvenir of her Platinum Jubilee than some of the tat we’ve seen hawked about (take a bow Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot Queen Jubilee Soft Toy Set….)

Whistler’s Mothers Day

Artistic licence is normally understood to be the painter’s prerogative but not where the US Postal Service is concerned. Whistler’s iconic painting from 1871 is a study in maternal patience. He was characteristically coy about the painting to friends saying ““One does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible.” Regardless, it has attained a sacred place in the American artistic pantheon, in part because of Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for what he took as its sentimentalism.

However, in 1934 the USPS saw their opportunity to use it as a way of celebrating Mother’s Day, another American creation. Reproducing the whole painting would have meant the matriarch was too small so the stamp version crops a lot of detail from the top and left side. At the same time, her pensive gaze which in the original invited us to imagine what she was thinking now fall on a vase of flowers.

A Post Officer And A Gentleman

Very much a case of déjà vu, a recent set of six British postage stamps harks back to six of its classic stamps from a generation ago. It is the first time the Royal Mail has dedicated an entire issue to a designer of its commemorative stamps.

For over 50 years, Keith Gentleman has produced some of the Post Office’s most iconic designs. The now commonplace practice of using a small cameo of the queen’s head in one corner of the stamp was one of his most enduring contributions. However, he has had the privilege of seeing over one hundred of his designs turned into stamps. Some of them, such as the designs of Concorde or the series dedicated to British social reformers are instantly recognisable. The latter, along with the ones he created to commemorate the Battle of Hastings, are among his personal favourites.

Remember These…?

Although there is every justification to regard the first British Christmas stamp as the ‘Letter Stamp’ issued to British forces stationed in Egypt in 1935, the first issue of what became an annual tradition owes its birth to Tony Benn. In 1966 Benn was Postmaster General and he included a set for Christmas as one of the special issues allowed by convention.

The Post Office decided that the design would best be sourced through an open competition for schoolchildren. On 1 December of that year Tasveer Shemza’s King of the Orient and James Berry’s Snowman were officially issued as Christmas stamps. Never very collectible because of the huge numbers which are printed, they remain a key part of the postal service’s revenue because of the numbers of Christmas cards which are still sent.

The Royal Mail’s Christmas Stamps 2021

Postal Tribute to Great Britain’s Industrial Heritage

Advance notice of Royal Mail’s forthcoming set of six new stamps honouring some of the most pivotal inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Available from August 12, the stamps will be printed in three se-tenant (side by side) pairs while a further four are being produced (on a special souvenir sheet) to mark several key developments in the electrical revolution.

Among the major technological steps forward being featured are the Bessemer process, the Spinning Jenny, Portland cement and the Penydarren Locomotive. A short description of their significance has been thoughtfully added to the stamp for those of us who, even if we did study GC(S)E History, might be forgiven for losing sight of their significance. Indeed, while the words ‘interesting morsel of information’ and ‘Royal Mail press release’ might not often be seen in close company, such was the case on this occasion when we discovered why the Spinning Jenny was so called. Thanks then to the unnamed functionary who explained that it was “…probably derived from a dialect pronunciation of the word ‘engine’, a term that commonly meant machine.” 

Variations on a Theme by Mail

Anyone starting out as a collector of stamps is often advised to specialise in a particular theme. Because the field is so vast, it is easy to flounder and lose one’s way. Choosing a theme for one’s collection is a much more certain way to master your field and even gain a degree of authority.

While some philatelists focus on the postal output of a particular country, properly speaking, this isn’t thematic or topical collecting. Often a collector will look to his or her existing interests to decide on a specialism. Cats, dogs, ships, spaceships, stamps on stamps, windmills, plants, chess, elephants, poets, war…the scope is enormous. And, in fact, such is the popularity of certain themes as subjects for stamps (birds, for example) that it’s probably a good idea to narrow the field further – flightless or aquatic birds perhaps. More offbeat ideas include crash mail (salvaged from airplane crashes), rocket mail (exactly what it says on the tin!) and stamps issued by an occupying power.

In the end, no matter how niche your choice, it is unlikely that you will be the only interested philatelist in this, the world’s most popular hobby. However, the chances are good that no-one else in the Dog and Duck this Friday will be in a position to argue with your contention that the 1930 USPS Zeppelin airmail issue remains the gold standard for stamps featuring airships.

The Museum of Culture in Your Stamp Album

While the average age of philatelists continues to rise, there is good reason not to exaggerate reports of its death. It remains the world’s number one collecting hobby for good reason. Certainly a generation is growing up who may one day be called on to reminisce about the time when they actually bought and used stamps at a post office. Yet while technology may indeed kill off the postage stamp for good, that passing will only increase its appeal as a link to our shared history.

Few tokens of a nation’s past are as revealing as its stamps and they can almost be viewed as miniature exhibits of a unique museum of culture. A stamp’s provenance, usage, iconography and even its price give us clues to, among other things, a country’s values, art, politics, geography, natural history and economy.

Indeed, as a recent Guardian article noted, many see them as works of art in their own right, uniquely placed to appeal to the Instagram generation. Suzanne Rae actually creates art which celebrate stamps as a medium on her site Art Stamped while John Simper, in his Twitter account @Philatelovely, has been posting fine examples daily in his Stamp of the Day feature for well over a year now.

Accompanying this post are a beautifully engraved US postage stamp ‘Western Cattle in Storm’, an optimistic $2-60 Zeppelin stamp from 1930 and a finely detailed UK issue celebrating the Postal Union Congress of 1929.