Tag Archives: Gentleman Album

The Battle of Britain stamps controversy

David Gentleman, whose many British stamp designs are currently being exhibited in our Search Room, is no stranger to controversy. In 1965 he wrote to Postmaster General Tony Benn (who had announced a new policy for stamp issues in late 1964 and was seeking suggestions) and requested that the design limitations of having to include the monarch’s head on stamps be addressed. Benn, a republican, was keen to remove the monarch’s head, and saw Gentleman’s design limitations argument as an excellent – and non-political – way to achieve this objective. 

Gentleman, and his wife Rosalind Dease, had already been commissioned to design stamps commemorating the death of Winston Churchill and the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and supplied Benn with versions of the designs without the Queen’s head. Ultimately, it was decided that the monarch’s head should remain on British stamps (you can read the full story by downloading the PDF The David Gentleman Album from our website), but this was not the end of the controversy as far as the Battle of Britain stamps were concerned.

More than a month before their release date a number of newspapers published images of the stamps, with several tabloids highlighting two of the eight stamps, which showed German aircraft. The first of the two stamps in question showed the wing-tip of a Messerschmitt fighter overshadowed by the wing-tip of a Spitfire; the other stamp showed a Dornier bomber sinking into the sea while Hawker Hurricanes flew above it. The reason for the focus on these stamps was that the German aircraft pictured featured German military emblems, the Balkenkreuz (cross) on the Messerschmitt and the swastika on the Dornier.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The inclusion of these emblems, particularly the swastika, caused great concern, with several Members of Parliament and the House of Lords speaking against the stamps. At the same time, representatives of a number of organisations, and many members of the public wrote letters to The Queen, the Prime Minister and Tony Benn, requesting that the Battle of Britain stamps be withdrawn.

A London Rabbi, writing to Benn on behalf of 775 families of his congregation, wrote “Please don’t allow swastika on our stamps. They are the 20th Century symbol of persecution, oppression, suffering and all that is evil”. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr S. Teff, also expressed his concerns in writing to Benn: “The Board has already received numerous complaints from members of the Jewish community to whom the sight of the swastika in any form is offensive in the extreme.”

A common theme amongst many of the complainants, in particular those who had served in the war, was that issuing a stamp bearing the swastika was an insult to the war dead. Others objected to the swastika appearing alongside the Queen’s head.

Withdrawing the stamps would have been very difficult for the Post Office as the Battle of Britain issue was the first set of stamps to be commissioned since Benn had changed the policy to include stamps commemorating important anniversaries. Indeed, the Battle of Britain stamps had come about partly due to lobbying from the Royal Air Forces Association and a number of Members of Parliament. The issue was also the largest issue of commemorative stamps to date.

Benn and his department took the view that the reason for the objections to the stamps was that the tabloid press articles which had highlighted the stamps featuring German aircraft, had not made clear the purpose of the stamps, and that black and white images of the stamps which appeared in various publications did not effectively convey the subtlety of the designs.

“The purpose of the stamp is to commemorate the victory over Nazism and I am sure that when the stamp is seen in colour it will be quite apparent that the swastika on the tail of the Dornier bomber is both split and half covered by water; the shattered Dornier is sinking in the English Channel and high above four RAF fighters, objective achieved, are flying back to base” wrote one official, in reply to a member of the public.

“In effect, the stamp is meant to be symbolic of the crushing of the Nazis and all that they stood for. We hope you will agree that within the limits of stamp design, it is difficult to do justice to a subject without introducing features of this kind into a series illustrating the Battle of Britain…”

Benn himself said in one letter “I feel that the stamp is a true reflection of that period in our history and…will be seen as a reminder of a great victory over the evil of Nazism. Because of this I do not propose to withdraw it.” He also argued that no objections were raised to the swastika being seen in newsreel footage of German planes, and that the RAF had displayed and flown captured Nazi aircraft on numerous occasions.

Eventually criticism died down, and despite threats to boycott the stamps sales were healthy, although the GPO arranged for adequate stocks of ordinary small size stamps to be available for those who did not wish to purchase the Battle of Britain issue.

Writing in his 2002 book Design, David Gentleman reflected “the tabloids [made] a great furore over the inclusion of a swastika and an iron cross. But without an enemy there would have been no battle and, as the stamps showed the Germans getting the worst of it anyway, the whole manufactured fuss quickly died down.”

The British Postal Museum & Archive holds many files relating to the Battle of Britain stamp issue. Details of these can be found on our online catalogue.

Gentleman on Stamps

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.

David Gentlemans stamp celebrating the social reforms of Lord Shaftesbury

David Gentleman's stamp celebrating the social reforms of Lord Shaftesbury

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.

One of David Gentlemans unadopted Ulster paintings

One of David Gentleman's unadopted Ulster paintings

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.