Tag Archives: collecting

A Passion for Postcards

Writer and researcher Guy Atkins explores the intrigues of old postcards and why we like collecting them.

As a boy I was keen on collecting things, old keys, coins, stamps. I loved stamps. When I was about 14 a great aunt died. Relatives knew that I collected stamps and there were four original albums from the Edwardian era in her possession, as she was very old. They gave them to me. Because of the stamps on the back. But of course, they were all ha’penny greens. They were all the same. And then I looked at the cards and thought they were interesting. They were more interesting than the stamps! And so I looked into it, really. And I sort of refined them. Took out some of the ones that I wasn’t particularly interested in, and sold them. You could get two pence each for an old card. That was about 1971. And for some reason I kept back some cards done by an artist called A. R. Quinton who died in 1934…

– Peter Cove

Forty years after having “kept back” his first cards, Peter Cove now owns one of every postcard designed by the artist A. R. Quinton, and published by Salmon’s of Sevenoaks. That’s 2,350 cards.

Peter Cove with the final card in his collection of postcards by the artist A. R. Quinton.

Peter Cove with the final card in his collection of postcards by the artist A. R. Quinton.

This time last year, I was writing a thesis on the intrigue of old postcards. Like Peter, I’m hooked on collecting them. And having read of his odyssey in Picture Postcard Monthly, I contacted Peter to see if I could interview him. I wanted to understand what it felt like to have finished a collection.

Brilliantly, he agreed. And invited me to his home near Dorchester. With his wife Sarah chatting to a friend in the kitchen, Peter poured the tea and we set about discussing our shared passion.

The details of Peter’s hunt were extraordinary: he told me of adverts he placed in French magazines to find a card of Dover that might have been sent to France; he explained how he’d buy cards he thought people with items on his “wanted list” might accept in exchange; and, lowering his voice for fear of Sarah overhearing, he spoke of visits to London markets where he’d spend hundreds of pounds.

Towards the end of the interview, Peter laid out some of his Quinton albums. With pride, he showed me the card that had brought his quest to an end: Salmon’s card no. 2986, picturing a railway line near Rhyl. He bought it for £300.

Picking it up, Peter described the card as “most uninteresting to most people”. One might have predicted this. The final card was always likely not to have been commercially successful when first sold, making it in short supply today. I was not prepared, however, for Peter’s ambivalence towards the rest of his collection:

“It’s something I liked years ago. And I started so I’ll finish. Do you know what I mean?… Now my tastes have changed. They’ve moved on to more sophisticated artwork…”

In my thesis, I wanted to see how Peter’s experiences stacked up against the ideas of academics who have written about collecting – in particular, the work of Jean Baudrillard and Susan Stewart. For Baudrillard, Peter’s serial motivation would be of little surprise. His apparent disregard for the cards’ aesthetic appeal tallies with Baudrillard’s observation that for collectors “what motivates the purchase is the pure imperative of association”.

Likewise, for Susan Stewart, Peter’s collection is not constructed by individual cards. Rather it comes to exist by how it is arranged. Stewart would argue that Peter’s ten heavy-duty albums are a kind of “Noah’s ark”, preserving items according to criteria selected by him.

Perhaps these charges are fair. But Peter unsettles other ideas of Baudrillard and Stewart. Take Baudrillard’s psychoanalytic portrait of collectors. He sees collectors as individuals struggling to form relationships with others, and using collecting as a way to withdraw from society. It is easy to match this template for collectors against fictional characters. Think of the terrifying Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’ The Collector, or Bruce Chatwin’s porcelain-obsessed Kasper Utz. Yet for Peter, being able to build relationships is at the core of his collecting. Rather than being estranged from society, Peter needed all his social skills to complete the Quinton series. It was his good relationships with dealers that allowed him to reach his goal. And while Peter is only one collector, empirical research on collecting suggests he is not unusual; collectors are not a markedly different group from the rest of the UK population.

Another strand of both Baudrillard and Stewart’s analyses Peter confounds is that collecting somehow abolishes time, that it is ‘anti-history’. For Stewart, “a collection replaces origin with classification”. This is an important part of her criticism of collecting as the “most abstract form of all consumption”. She believes it eradicates labour, making the moment of production remote.

It is true that Peter does not greatly value the artistic merits of Quinton’s work (“he was not a great artist!”) and the driver of his collecting was undoubtedly the completion of the series. But the origins of the cards matter. Ordered according to when the originals were painted, the cards in Peter’s albums provide a history of Quinton’s journey around Britain. Far from marginalizing Quinton’s labour, Peter and fellow members of the Salmon Study Group reveal it. Each year they visit sites he painted and compare the artwork on his cards with the views today.

So where does this leave us? Well, interviewing Peter and other collectors has made me wonder whether it’s time for a reversal in the portrayal of collecting, time for collecting to edge out from the shadows. Perhaps the motivations for collecting will always be private and mysterious. Maybe collectors do use the pursuit of objects to escape into their own worlds. But this should not stop us from recognizing the communal benefits of collecting. Alongside that drive to complete, stories emerge, histories are rescued and communities form.

I’ve finished my thesis now. But I’m keen to keep investigating. So if you’re a collector, I’d be delighted if you got in touch. Especially, if you’ve a story of something that has happened as a result of your collecting. Maybe you’ve uncovered an interesting history that would have otherwise been forgotten? Or become great friends with other collectors? If anything comes to mind, please do get in touch. My email address is guyatkins@gmail.com. Or write to Guy Atkins c/o BPMA, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, LONDON WC1X 0DL. I’ve also got a blog you can follow at www.postcardese.com or @postcardese on Twitter.

References:

Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Collecting”, in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, (Reaktion Books, 1994)

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, 1993)

The Englishman Who Posted Himself & Other Curious Objects

Just added to our podcast is a recording of a talk given at the BPMA by John Tingey, author of The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects. John Tingey’s talk, based on his book about the eccentric habits of W. Reginald Bray, took place in March in front of a packed audience.

W Reginald Bray in his study with some of his collection

W Reginald Bray in his study with some of his collection

W. Reginald Bray was an enthusiast and collector who enjoyed testing the Post Office Regulations to their limits. Bray posted items including a frying pan, a turnip, seaweed, and even himself on more than one occasion. He also tried the postal service’s patience by experimenting with ways of addressing letters and cards, using drawings, collage and codes.

Download the podcast at www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.

The Wilkinson Collection

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

In 1989 the National Postal Museum (a predecessor of the BPMA) received a collection which has since been known as the Wilkinson Collection, named after the original collector, Ian Wilkinson. Since the Collection entered the Museum it has been somewhat sidelined, until now. Over the next few weeks and months I will be cataloguing the Wilkinson Collection, but due to the large number of objects in the Collection (estimated at 3,000!) this could take some time. In the meantime I will be writing a series of these blogs, highlighting different aspects of the collection and keeping you up-to-date on progress. When the project is completed the entire Collection will be available on the BPMA’s online catalogue for all to see.

A photograph of some of the Wilkinson Collection as displayed in Ian Wilkinsons home.

A photograph of some of the Wilkinson Collection as displayed in Ian Wilkinson's home.

The Wilkinson Collection could be surmised as ‘any object with a letterbox on it’, but it is so much more than this. It covers such a range of material and events that, whatever your interest, there is probably something that will prompt a smile or a memory; whether it is a model china letter box celebrating the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, the Dinky Toys you played with as a child and now treasure as an adult, or, as in my case, the Postman Pat stories and games that still prompt a rendition of the theme tune. The Wilkinson Collection is also possibly one of the largest collections of letter box material in the country.

Ian Wilkinson began collecting when he was a small boy, being attracted by anything from stamps to Dinky Toys. Unfortunately, his childhood collection was destroyed during a bombing raid in World War Two and he did not resume serious collecting until the 1960s, when a shop proprietor agreed to look out for any items related to Chesham (where Wilkinson lived). The first item purchased as a result of this agreement was a small tin money box shaped like a letter box, similar to one Wilkinson had had as a boy.[1] From this object an entire collection spread and grew and, in 1976, Wilkinson and fellow collectors formed The Letter Box Study Group, which is still going strong with around 800 members.

The Wilkinson Collection shows how collecting can be an exciting and strange experience. It can lead in many different directions, both for the collection and the collector. Maybe it will encourage others to start their own collections. In future blogs I shall be focussing on how once a collection enters a museum, another phase of its life begins.

To find out more about The Letter Box Study Group visit their website at www.lbsg.org.


[1] ‘The Wilkinson Collection’ in National Postal Museum’s The Philatelic Year 1989, ed. Douglas Muir, p.11.