by Sue Barnard, Exhibitions and Learning Manager
Every year we mount a new exhibition in our Search Room on a philatelic theme. This year’s exhibition will feature the work of one of the most prolific contributors to British stamp design, David Gentleman.
David Gentleman’s association with the Post Office and Royal Mail dates back to 1962, when his designs to mark National Productivity Year were selected. His contribution to pictorial stamp design during the 1960s is described by Douglas Muir, Curator of Philately at the BPMA as “supremely important”.
Keen to address the visual limitations imposed by the inclusion of the monarch’s head on British commemorative stamps, it was during that decade that David Gentleman wrote to Tony Benn, then Postmaster General, about the possibilities of alternative approaches. The resulting “Essays in Stamp Design” proposed new commemorative stamp subjects such as birds, transport, architecture and regional landscapes.
The proposals also included a single sheet of se tenant stamps featuring each of the eighteen rulers of Britain since the Anglo Scottish Union of 1603, which David Gentleman describes as one of the most interesting subjects to design.
Some of the 100 essays that comprise what became known as “The Gentleman Album” will be on display. For Douglas Muir, this early work demonstrates how David Gentleman was responsible for revolutionising the concept, format and extent of pictorial design.
The British Pioneers of Social Reform stamps of 1976 will be exhibited to illustrate the processes worked through from the design stage into print. The series comprises four stamps commemorating the work of important nineteenth century reformers. Rather than take a traditional approach to representing individual achievement through portraiture, David Gentleman chose to use strong imagery to convey the very essence of what it was each campaigner wanted to reform.
Thomas Hepburn, the pioneer of the first miners union is represented by the hewing of coal, the visionary cotton mill owner Robert Owen by the pulley-wheels and belts of the textile factory, Lord Shaftesbury, the campaigner for improved working conditions, is represented by the brush of a chimney sweep, and Elizabeth Fry, champion of women prisoners, by the bars of a cell.
A visual theme running throughout all four is the symbolic use of hands, representing the shared suffering endured by many of the underprivileged in nineteenth century society. The display will include artwork showing some of the stages through which the design of the Robert Owen stamp developed.
It is an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of specific printing techniques that Douglas Muir believes marks David Gentleman out from other designers. The 1994 Regional Definitives exemplify this, and examples of the same scene depicted in wood engraving, lithography and watercolour will be on display.
David Gentleman describes how he found the deliberate, well-thought-out aspects of design attractive quite early in his career. This encouraged him to take up wood engraving, often working on a small scale.
When designing stamps later on it was this need to focus on an idea and to exclude everything non-essential that was important. Douglas Muir highlights the 1971 Ulster Paintings as demonstrating this ability to think and work stamp size. A selection of these rapid sketches will be included in the exhibition.
Focusing on stamps previously unseen, this section of the exhibition will also include examples from the 2001 English Definitives. In these, various buildings and landscapes are used to represent English culture and identity. Ranging from the pictorial to the abstract, designs in this series incorporate natural and man-made features, such as chalk down, cornfield and white horse, as well as formal architectural elements.
Gentleman on Stamps can be seen in BPMA’s Search Room from 7th May. On display will be the artwork behind some of Gentleman’s issued stamps as well as unadopted designs and issues previously unseen by the public. As stamp design is but one element of Gentleman’s work the exhibition will also include a selection of posters from his own collection. In addition a 1968 GPO film Picture to Post, featuring the work of David Gentleman, will be screened.
An online version of Gentleman on Stamps, including a downloadable pdf on The David Gentleman Album, can be viewed on our website. David Gentleman will deliver a talk entitled Design Into Print at the BPMA on 14th May 2009.