The landscape in miniature
1840 saw the arrival of two new revolutionary methods of postal payment, namely, the decorated envelope and the postage stamp. The envelope, engraved by Royal Academician William Mulready, depicted domestic scenes from the British Empire and the postage stamp offered an elegant profile of Queen Victoria. The ‘Mulready envelope’ was quickly satirised by the public for its sentimentality and pomposity and the postage stamp then emerged as the preferred choice of the public, leaving the decorated envelope to evolve gradually into the pictorial postcard and the greetings card. Other countries adopted the printed pre-paid label concept and gradually governments recognised the potential of this itinerant advertisement to promote the home-country, often through the inclusion of a romanticised landscape. These tiny cross hatched engravings were squeezed into elaborate frames with awkwardly inserted place-names and denominations – the bi-product of a skewed creative process that was strictly by committee and government office.
The gradual emergence of the British Commonwealth, from the wreckage of The British Empire, saw the British Government (The Royal Mail) adopt a similar (although belated) attitude to the design of its stamps. A profile of the monarch, place name, denomination and landscape (in two colours) all combined in a dignified sober, neutral and inoffensive view imbibed with the occasional glimpse of a native carrying water jugs, rowing canoes or picking coconuts. Of course this conservative and dry template failed dismally to mirror anything of the cultural singularity of the colonial outposts, but that was the point. The design of British and its colonies’ stamps tried hard to remain calm during enormous change in the 1930’s and 40’s.
This rather conservative approach died a slow death, but was eventually ended by the introduction of new full colour printing technology and the interference of Tony Benn (appointed Postmaster general 1964) when in collaboration with dynamic young designer David Gentleman, he introduced a more progressive and expressive vision of what could be placed on the stamp. Gentleman wanted to de-clutter the space and replace it with exciting graphics. Instead of avoiding cultural references he wanted to celebrate them and what followed was a short but golden age of stamp design. This presentation will chart the journey up to and beyond this point and include original new material from interviews with David Gentleman and Andrew Restall (first Professor of Miniscule Design), the two pre-eminent design voices of that new age. It will explore how the Royal Mail juxtaposed images of landscape and monarch to present a unified and coherent visible calm as Europe struggled through uncertainty and how post-war Britain came to use the postage stamp to come to terms with its new ambitions and multi culturalism.