Title: Stamps that tell the tale
Author: Robert Waterhouse
Stamps that tell the tale
In reality, stamps are no more than a simple receipt to prove that postage has been paid. But, because they are a well-placed medium for information and propaganda, they have taken on a much more important role. Robert Waterhouse looks at their uses here; while our cover shows the new stamp designed by Peter Murdoch celebrating Britain's entry into the European Common Market
Ever since Victoria imposed her increasingly severe profile on the Penny Black, postage stamps, like coins before them, have been used to embody and reinforce the power of the ruling monarch (or president or junta) throughout the world. Stamps mean propaganda, whether hiding under the guise of a commemorative issue like this year's celebration of 150 years of Greek independence, or acting as a deliberate revolutionary gesture like the first Bangla Desh issue, printed some time before the nation achieved independence.
Once you have seized the radio and tv stations, the production of your own postage stamps is not a bad next step; stamps, almost by definition, reach everyone. The more graphic they are, the less they depend on a literate public. A big, bold message in vibrant colours endorsed by the official post office frank takes a lot of beating; coins, confined to one colour, limited in form by the demands of relief minting, with a much slower national and almost negligible international distribution, cannot hope to compete.
There is very often a distinction between the stamps intended for internal use and those which, by their very price, are most likely to appear on overseas mail. Take, for instance, the Bangla Desh issue designed by Biman Mullick, a Bengalee who lives and teaches graphics in the London area. The lower denomination stamps, for internal letters and postcards, show a map of the new country and remind citizens of the March 1971 massacre at Dacca University and that they are part of a nation of 75 million people. The one rupee stamp, used both for internal parcels and airmail letters, proclaims the new independence flag. The ten rupees one, strictly for heavy external parcels and philatelists, bears the simple slogan "Support Bangla Desh''. With the official creation of the state, it was triumphantly overprinted "Bangle Desh liberated''.
In the case of the Greek independence celebrations the methods and implications were much more subtle. After all, which country wouldn't take such an opportunity for a commemorative issue? The Greek stamps, adapted from contemporary lithographs, show the rousing and courageous struggles of the tiny, ill-equipped bands of freedom fighters against the might of the Ottoman Empire. These heroic figures, performing lively miracles on amply sized and sensitively printed stamps, inevitably link the events of the great days of 1821 with the accomplishments of the present regime even though there is nothing except the dates to remind the public. The Colonels, who overstated everything when first in power, have obviously learned some of the gentler arts of persuasion.
Four issues marking British achievements and cooperation: The Concorde issue is 1969; EFTA 1967; while the hovercraft and nuclear reactor are part of the same series celebrating British technology, 1966 Designers: Concorde, Michael Goaman;
EFTA, Clive Abbott; Hovercraft and nuclear power, Andrew Restall
1971 series showing modern British architecture and 1972 Tutankhamun anniversary stamp - conveniently plugging the British Museum exhiobition, which opened around the time the stamp was issued
A United States group, typical of exhortations and promotion common on US issues. The newspaperboys' stamp celebrates the "important service rendered their communities and their nation;" the newsboy's haversack says "Busy boys ... better boys"
Chinese Communist stamps: On the far left the issue commemorates the 145th anniversary of Marx's birth. The slogan ''Workers of the world unite'' is overprinted in gold on the Communist Manifesto. The middle two are promoting physical culture
Early Bangla Desh issues: the Sheikh Mujib example is a piece of purely internal propaganda, while the higher-rate stamps are intended for overseas consumption and put the country on the map
1960 Turkish issue evidently warning against corruption, the visual is a trial of ex-government officials
Extremist North Korean issues; the bottom one represents the 'free' (ie Communist) people of the world under attack from the Capitalist press; the stamp was issued to commemorate a conference of Communist journalists
Prestige by association: commemorative series by Sharaj, one of the Trucial states, issued in memory of President de Gaulle shortly after his death in 1970
1968 ill-fated Biafra "independence" stamp issued by the Ojukwu regime
East German ''five-year plan'' stamp, part of a series showing the population at work
Such propaganda exercises, however subtly they are executed, tend to look rather vulgar when compared with the kind of understatement practised by Britain. British stamps do not even bear the name of the country of origin. The Queen's head, present on every issue, has become a convenient shorthand symbol instead - much prized, incidentally, by the Post Office, which would otherwise be compelled to print "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'' on every stamp. Admittedly, though, in solving one design problem it raises another; since 1964, with the Shakespeare quatercentenary issue, other portraits have been allowed on British stamps and the clash of interest has become critical. What, really, was the Queen doing lurking over Winston Churchill's shoulder after the great man had died? And what sort of dialogue was she carrying on with John Keats during last year's anniversary? She is even to be found surveying the action at the Battle of Hastings; for the same commemoration the French also produced a stamp which, naturally, remembers history a little differently. Queen or no queen, the British stamp is far more vigorous, disciplined, even amusing. A designer's stamp (the work of David Gentleman) in contrast to one put together by tradition and a bit of luck, and a good example of the impetus created by the Stamp Advisory Committee.
David Gentleman himself does not feel that overt propaganda is a worthwhile ingredient. "All that I can hope to do as a designer is to provide visual interest and pleasure, and to convey the subject reasonably aptly,'' he says. Both Gentleman and Stuart Rose, the Post Office's design director and the man directly responsible to the advisory committee for the standard of graphics on British stamps, agree that there are some subjects which give themselves to illustration, others - like the anniversary of the first Trades Union Congress or the current EEC specials - where the idea to be expressed is too abstruse or abstract. Both, in a way, see this as ample evidence that propaganda is likely to fail per se.
In any case, traditions are such in this country that propaganda stamps are never likely to be commissioned, let alone executed. But that doesn't mean to say that there are no outside pressures on the designer. ''When I was working on the Battle of Britain commemorative issue it was suggested by the Foreign Office that any illustration of Anglo-German conflict was in bad taste,'' says David Gentleman. "It was only a hint, but it was the sort of hint that had to be avoided. I went ahead with what I had originally in mind, but if I had been less experienced it might have been different. The only weapon that the designer has is to say that he won't do the job - and that's usually a very difficult thing to say."
In the days of the Empire, the monarch's head served the solid purpose of underlining the meaning of the Raj, or whatever. George V as Emperor of India makes a handsome and assured picture, a stable stamp for what seemed a stable society. But we in this country have never been much inclined to produce the didactic, exhortative message. Perhaps we have not had so much need for it, certainly nothing to rival the people of the civil war-torn Congo, who after ail the fighting in the sixties were ordered by the victorious Colonel "et maintenant . . . le Congo au travail''. The Chinese, too, since the establishment of the People's Republic, have been treated to a succession of simple but finely detailed stamps which show by example what every diligent revolutionary should be up to. An extensive series produced in East Germany underlined the five-year plan by showing with a stylised romanticism the perfect actions for the factory, the farm and the home.
Illegal anti-communist stamp printed in Spain, commemorating a US space flight in 1962 as a "victory" over the USSR
Illegal issues of second world war, which produced a legion of forgeries. Top, British forgery ineffectively executed shows Hitler as a grinning skull, above, Indian propaganda by Germany
Rhodesian ''independence'' issue, not accepted by Britain as postage revenue, letters from Rhodesia bearing it were surcharged
Achievements in space have been celebrated by practically every country, but the US stamp above set new levels of audacity
Round and about the British Commonwealth in fine patriotic and Informative style, with, bottom. 1946 issue showing "symbols of peace and reconstruction"
An advance from the simple encouraging message, though often connected to it in intent, is the proud display of technology. The East European Communist bloc countries, for example, couldn't come out fast enough with stamps to celebrate the Russian space achievements with their own variation of a science fiction drawing. But first prize for the most vivacious space issue must go to Grenada, which managed on one stamp the Americans walking on the moon, the slogan ''we came in peace for all mankind" end the royal insignia. Aeroplanes, conveniently used for airmail issues, are still considered a symbol of a progressive society - witness the VC 10 on the current British 5p air letter, numerous American examples and ones from France or Turkey. No doubt, soon enough, the progressive stamp will be one that advocates a radical solution to the technological mess we have created around us.
Some, however, would question the effectiveness of stamps as a medium for disseminating information. For instance, the British Tourist Authority, which has a very large budget for overseas promotions, is not at all convinced that even the "right" sort of stamp, saying ''Come to sunny, inexpensive Britain'', would have much market impact. A BTA spokesman, who admitted that his organisation used stamps for limited, specialised campaigns, added that he would want to know (a) where stamps went, (b) whether they went to the right people, and (c) how self-explanatory they were before he could sanction money for their use, and he didn't hold out much hope of the Post Office agreeing to his kind of hard-sell ideas.
1968 Russian celebration of Lenin's 98th anniversary; the great man is speaking from a lorry during a parade
Greek issues recall the rousing struggles of the freedom fighters against the might of the Ottoman Empire; only the dates are given, connecting the achievements of the freedom fighters and the current regime
British celebration and propaganda by association: the bottom one, interestingly with two queens instead of one, was issued for a stamp exhibition in 1970. Designers: Battle of Britain, David Gentleman and Rosalind Deas; Parliament, Richard Guyatt; Philympia, David Gentleman
Royal silver weddings: The 1948 stamp has much more style and grace than the issue Jersey is putting out for this year's royal anniversary
Battle of Hastings commemoration, as seen by the two sides who took part; the British stamp by David Gentleman bears the printer's name, a practice now discontinued