Tag Archives: mail art

Pushing the Envelope with James Addison

In this post, Graphic designer James Addison gives us a preview of his talk next Thursday 12 November at 7pm. James has been testing the Royal Mail’s delivery service through a series of peculiar envelopes containing nothing more than cryptic clues and puzzling addresses to see what lengths our humble posties will go to deliver our letters. 


Have you ever thought about sending a banana through the post? Or even asking your postman to decide where your letter should be sent? Perhaps writing your address in Morse code? No?

As a self-confessed ‘Post Puzzler’, I have been challenging the Royal Mail by writing and sending cryptic addresses on envelopes for many years. From maps and symbols to word-searches and drawings of the destination, they never fail to deliver and I have a growing admiration for their patience and perseverance.


The Royal Mail has been a great fascination of mine for many years. How a letter can physically travel from one end of the country to the other for just 54p is still brilliant (you can’t even buy a Double-Decker chocolate bar for that price). But when you discover the lengths that our postal service have gone to in order to deliver that letter then receiving one is even more special.


During my talk I will be delving back into my own personal archives of curious envelopes, odd experiments and occasionally eyebrow-raising postal exploits. Please join me as I share not only my work but that of many other artists, designers and illustrators over the years who have explored this still thriving medium and bringing a whole new meaning to the word ‘postcode’.

-James Addison

Join James next Thursday 12 November at 7pm. Book your tickets today online or ring + 44 (0)20 7239 2570 to reserve your place!

The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelope: Case Closed

Regular readers may remember my blog, ‘The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelopes’, a beautiful story of communication via illustrated envelopes, which were sent to various members of the Tolhurst family. Since writing about the mystery, we’ve uncovered some exciting new pieces of the story. Image 7 After the blog was published, we quite quickly received an e-mail from a descendant of Charles Frederick Tolhurst, informing us that she was Vera Tolhurst’s niece, Frederick Charles Tolhurst’s granddaughter, and that she had found the BPMA’s Tolhurst blog when looking up the family surname on Google. We were, obviously, extremely excited and arranged a meeting. Image 3 When we met Tolhurst’s descendants, Brenda and Sandy, they brought with them a large collection of previously unknown of illustrated envelopes, which were made by Charles Frederick Tolhurst and sent to his son Reginald, their father. Reuniting the illustrated envelopes sent to Reginald with those sent to Vera, one appreciated the scale of the communication and the amount of time and effort put into this correspondence. Image 11 Years after sending mail art to his children, Charles Frederick Tolhurst sent illustrated envelopes to his grandchild. Themes of warfare are again depicted as the Second World War had by then broken out. The letters which accompany the illustrated envelopes are in the family’s collection, bringing us into direct contact with Charles Frederick Tolhurst’s voice for the first time. One such letter and illustrated envelope was sent on his granddaughter’s first birthday, in September 1939. The letter sends ‘many happy returns’ but hopes for happier birthdays ‘than the present one, because we are at war with Germany and you are away with your Dear Mother from home in consequence of the disturbing times that modern warfare brings. May happier days soon be with us.’ The accompanying illustrated envelope is far more solemn than those Tolhurst usually sent to children and depicts a mile stone engraved with ‘1 MILE’ and a sign post pointing to ‘LIFE’S JOURNEY’. Image 10 In May 1940, Tolhurst wrote to his granddaughter again of war, and sent the letter in an envelope which he had illustrated with grey tanks, aeroplanes and parachutes. He wrote “Not a happy looking envelope but in days to come, you will hear of people talking about the war at times they will mention those things on the envelope.” He goes on to say “no doubt when you reach the age of 21 you will consider [the envelopes] interesting.” It seems Tolhurst was hoping to capture his experience of warfare through his artwork, so that his family might remember and make sense of it in the future. Image 5 This family’s mail art story continues today as Charles Frederick’s granddaughter sends mail art to her friends and family – this is a family tradition of communication and illustration spanning over 100 years. Image 6 It was wonderful to meet the Tolhurst family, learn more about their story and close the mystery of the Tolhurst envelopes. -Joanna Espin, Curator

Dear Amie

At the BPMA we regularly work with local community groups, engaging them with our collection and listening to their stories. The outcome is always rewarding, but sometimes the way these groups interpret our collections is truly heart-warming. The BPMA Community Learning Officer, Hannah Clipson, tells us about her experience working with a group of 10 trafficked women known as the Amies.

During the summer of 2014 I spent 12 weeks working with the Amies on a project run in partnership with the October Gallery to investigate the design history of the postal service. These women are of diverse nationalities and ages; brought together by PAN Arts, a London based Arts Company, and The Poppy Project, an organisation providing support, advocacy and accommodation for trafficked women, and as such had a wide range of experiences and outlooks.

Over the course of the 12 weeks we looked at the changing uniforms of postal workers, the process of stamp design, the poster collection and mail art.

Examples of mail art from the BPMA collections

Examples of mail art from the BPMA collections

Inspired by their own experiences and the objects and stories explored in the BPMA collections, the group responded in creative ways, guided by the artist Ella Phillips from October Gallery. We designed our own stamp artwork, sent our own mail art through the post and they sent letters to family and friends, some examples of which you can see below. In addition, each participant had their own sketch book that they could add to during the workshops and in their own time.

Some of the work created by the Amies

Some of the work created by the Amies

Dear Amie exceeded our expectations; not only did it facilitate a range of positive outcomes for the participants but it also proved invaluable to the BPMA. One of the participants described her pride in having created positive experiences and a new life for herself and there was an eagerness to develop a second phase of the project in 2015. For this the women decided they’d like to create a textile output which will be displayed in our brand new Postal Museum, due to open in 2016.

Stamp artwork created by the group

One of the Amies design for a stamp showing things important to her

For the BPMA we learned some extremely valuable lessons and gained some remarkable stories of what the postal service means to different people. The level of engagement showed us the true potential of our collection and the diverse ways in which it can be used to inspire a wide range of audiences. The postal theme resonated with the women in a way that we could not have imagined. For most of them, sending a letter to loved ones had been a lifeline through extremely difficult circumstances. Recollection of these memories, stimulated through the exploration of BPMA material, led to a fascinating and unexpected reinterpretation of some of our objects and the discovery of some truly remarkable, personal stories. It reinforced to us that our collection can be interpreted in meaningful, personal ways and act as a catalyst to uncovering touching stories such as those of the Amies.

The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelopes

We love a mystery at the British Postal Museum & Archive and the identity of the artist behind the illustrated ‘Tolhurst’ envelopes has intrigued us for years.



The first step in identifying the artist was to research the address to which the majority of the envelopes were sent: St Lawrence, Ernest Road, Hornchurch. Staff at Havering Museum, where a selection of the envelopes were recently displayed, found that the 1911 census showed the occupants as George, Amelia, Frederick and Amy Tolhurst. Frederick and George Tolhurst, father and son, were frequent recipients of the illustrated envelopes.

1911 census record, St Lawrence, Hornchurch

1911 census record, St Lawrence, Hornchurch

Locating the census record enabled the identification of all but one recipient: Vera. Vera received the majority of the illustrated envelopes in the collection, and the majority of Vera’s letters were sent to the Hornchurch address. However, she did not appear in the census record, nor could we find her in the birth records of the General Register Office, due to lack of information. Not put off, we used the information we had accumulated to construct a family tree.
Returning to the envelopes, we found a vital piece of information: the initials ‘FC’ or ‘FCT’ appeared in the corner of several illustrations. Using the family tree, we narrowed down the identity of the artist to Frederick Charles Tolhurst.

Tolhurst signature, 2014_0038_110

The artist’s initials

The identity of Vera continued to elude us, however. We considered whether Vera was a nickname, or perhaps an acronym, but we had no evidence to confirm either of these theories. We drew a step closer to the truth last week when we discovered a postcard which was addressed to Vera and signed ‘with love & kisses from your Mama & Papa’.

with love from mama and papa 2014_0038_112_back

The evidence that steered our search

We searched the birth index for Vera Tolhurst and identified a Vera Sylvia Tolhurst, born in 1908 in the district of Lambeth. A copy of the birth certificate arrived at the BPMA yesterday: listed as Vera’s father is Frederick Charles Tolhurst, and listed as his occupation is Lithographic Artist Journeyman. By 1911, Tolhurst’s occupation had changed to Trade Union Secretary, but his artistic talent was maintained in the mail art he frequently sent to his family.

A postcard from Tolhurst to Vera (2014_0038_112)

A postcard from Tolhurst to Vera (2014_0038_112)

I’ve been inspired by the Tolhurst envelopes to try my hand at mail art. Why don’t you have a go and let us know if they arrive by Tweeting @postalheritage using #mailart.

My attempt at mail art

My attempt at mail art

Joanna Espin, Curator

Postal Mischief podcast

In April we invited the writer, broadcaster, artist and musician David Bramwell to the BPMA to give a talk on the history of postal mischief. This turned out to be a fascinating and highly entertaining event, looking at the work of key players in this field including the ‘King of Mail Art’ Ray Johnson, Victorian prankster Reginald Bray and musician Genesis P.Orridge, who inadvertently changed the postal laws (owing to the ‘colourful’ nature of his homemade postcards).

Colourful mail art referenced in David Bramwell's talk.

Colourful mail art referenced in David Bramwell’s talk.

David also shared his own exploits in mail art, which saw him and a friend post unusual objects to each other – much to the amusement of local Post Office and Royal Mail staff.

Post Office staff were amused when this set of false teeth came in to be posted!

Post Office staff were amused when this set of false teeth came in to be posted!

You can now listen to or download David Bramwell’s talk as a podcast via our website, iTunes or SoundCloud. And if David has inspired you to engage in some postal mischief do let us know about it!

A tropical leaf which was posted to David Bramwell.

A tropical leaf which was posted to David Bramwell.

Find out about our upcoming talks and other public events on the Events page of our website.

Stamp Collage Art – Open Studio exhibition in May

Hi, I’m Rachel Marwick, and I will be taking part in Stroud Open Studios (Site 13) festival on 11th/12th and 18th/19th May this year. As a stamp collage artist I will be having my studio open to the public on both weekends from 10.30 – 6pm each day and will have original framed stamp collages, prints and cards for sale, but always welcome browsers too as there’s always something to talk about where stamps are concerned! For younger visitors I have also devised a small quiz which will get them searching in my pictures for some of the stamps I’ve used in creating the pictures.

I have been making stamp collages for more than ten years now and one of the questions I often get asked is, “Where do you get all the stamps from?” The answer is that my parents were stamp dealers from the 1950s until my father’s death in 2001 when my mother decided that she could not really continue with the business. Most of the stock had to be sold, but a certain amount I wanted to keep and then inspiration struck and I started to make pictures from the remainder of the stock!

I wondered if serious stamp collectors would be shocked, but I really do try not to use anything which I know to be valuable to a collector, instead using common stamps and postal material, such as backs of postcards and envelopes, postmarks etc. I love incorporating interesting details from stamps to create my pictures, and particularly love searching for people to populate my crowd scenes, such as the pictures of the Colosseum and Leaning Tower of Pisa. I also seem to have become a magnet for stamps as when people see what I do, they often offer me small collections or stamps they have been saving up for whatever reason!

As well as having my own studio open as part of the festival, where more than 90 artists are also opening their own studios, my work will be featured in a Taster Exhibition in Stroud Subscription rooms, and also in a joint exhibition at The Old Passage Inn, Arlingham as part of the Walking the Land Artists exhibition, which is called “Between the Woods and the Water”. The picture below will give you an idea of the use of both stamps and postmarks in my work!

It would be lovely to welcome you to my studio and if you do come along, please mention where you heard about it!

Rachel Marwick
The Lawn, 132 Bisley Road, Stroud, Glos. GL5 1HL
01453 757933
Directions to studio are in the Open Studios Brochure or phone me for further details.

Deal Lugger

Deal Lugger

Postal Mischief

On Thursday 18th April we will be welcoming writer and performer David Bramwell as he presents a talk exploring the curious history of postal mischief.

Using a slide show of fascinating images and video clips David will discuss the key mischief makers, including the ‘King of Mail Art’ Ray Johnson and Victorian prankster Reginald Bray. In addition, the musician Genesis P. Orridge who inadvertently changed the postal laws thanks to the ‘colourful’ nature of his homemade postcards!

David Bramwell tries to post some underpants.

David Bramwell tries to post some underpants.

When you leave, indulge in your own postal mischief too – David will be hoping to inspire you to ‘post a flip-flop to someone you love’ by sharing his own exploits in mail art.

David has won a Sony Award for his work on Radio 3 and spoken at TED, Idler Academy and Alain de Botton’s School of Life. He runs the Catalyst Club in Brighton where everyday people talk about their passions in front of a live audience.

Visit our website to book for Postal Mischief.

Artistamps 2010: An International Mail Art show organised by the Shopping Trolley Gallery

by Martha Aitchison, Mail Artist

In June the Beckenham Sorting Office hosted a small exhibition, very different from the usual art show. This was an international exhibition of fake postage stamps, made by artists and therefore called Artistamps, to which 53 artists from 18 countries responded.

Mail art from all over the world

I organised it in recognition of the contribution made by the postal services to Mail Art, an art movement that started in the 1960’s, consisting in the postal exchange of artwork among artists. It is not known how many of us are involved in this very democratic activity where no work is ever rejected and nothing is ever sold. We mount shows in unusual places; my favourite is my shopping trolley. In the Mail Art universe there are virtual countries and even virtual planets. Most artists have a nickname, or two, and it is all about friendship and fun but opinions are expressed on serious issues as well.

Mail art from all over the world

With many Mail Artists now using the Internet for their art exchanges, some of us are fighting to keep alive our dear ‘Snail Mail Art’, as artwork sent by post is affectionately called. My own contribution to the show is a stamp on this subject.

Mail art from all over the world

Here are photos of the Shopping Trolley Gallery (STG) and of my stamp, and then of some of the stamps in the show. To see all the Artistamps 2010 Show please visit my web site: www.mailartmartha.org.uk

The shopping trolley gallery

The shopping trolley gallery

And follow the shopping trolley around…

Keep Me Posted

Opening today is Keep Me Posted the inaugural exhibition of POSTED – a temporary exhibition space in a former post office in East London, which is directed and curated by Julia Royse. This show launches POSTED as a platform for a series of art exhibitions, performances, screenings and workshops celebrating the ‘post’ and exploring our postal heritage.

POSTED - an exhibition space in a former post office in Hackney

POSTED - an exhibition space in a former post office in Hackney

The General Post Office used to be a powerful and important institution in Britain and, with postman delivering mail up to 8 times a day, it was relied upon to make same day appointments as well as communicating the usual news and views.

Mail art on display

Mail art on display

In 1902 the postcard appeared and was hugely popular as a quick and cheap method of sending announcements and thoughts and coined the phrase “I’ll be post carding you”. Today there are many artists who use postcards, stamps, stationery and letters in their work as well as those that use the postal service as part of the creative process either by writing letters, or sending artworks by mail.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The perfect love affair is one which is conducted entirely by post”. We still enjoy poring over old letters examining the style and idiosyncrasies of handwriting and the choice of stationery however today we are less inclined to communicate through letters and cards. As texts and email are currently the most popular means of communication and many schools now use computers instead of pen and paper, one wonders what will happen to our handwriting skills over the forthcoming decades and there must be many young people today who have never experienced communication by post.

The exhibitions presented at POSTED will hopefully inspire people to put pen to paper again as well as reminding us of a time when communication was more personal and less generic.

The post office counter reimagined

The post office counter reimagined

Keep Me Posted is an exhibition of newly commissioned and loaned artwork, in a variety of disciplines, by established and emerging artists including Andreas Blank, Claire Brewster, Jo Broughton, Oliver Clegg, Julie Cockburn, Adam Dix, Sean Dower, Tracey Emin, Angus Fairhurst, Tom Gidley, Cate Halpin, Susie Hamilton, Rachel Howard, Duncan MacAskill, Polly Morgan, Julia Riddiough, Liisa Roberts, Jane Simpson, James White, Rachel Whiteread and Miyo Yoshido

Keep Me Posted runs until 26 September at 67 Wilton Way, London E8 1BG. The exhibition is open Thursday to Sunday, 11am – 5pm, or else by appointment. Keep Me Posted is part of London 2010: Festival of Stamps.