Tag Archives: mailart

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

Puzzles for Postmen

James Addison is a graphic designer currently living and working in Poole, England. In this guest post, he shares his hobby of sending peculiar addresses through the post.

Sending peculiar post has been a hobby of mine for many years. The thrill of receiving a handwritten letter or postcard really cannot be emulated by a stark and cold email. From the feel of the paper to the indentations caused when putting pen to paper; there is a sort of chemistry when you receive a physical message that feels incredibly personal. However, it’s even better when you realise and appreciate the effort it has taken to deliver that message.


I grew up in a very leafy village in Buckinghamshire and we had a postman there called Frank who was, in my opinion, incredibly efficient. Letters would be delivered exactly at the same time every day; he knew the area inside out and he was rarely late. It was at this point that I thought I could set him a challenge, an opportunity to test both his and the sorting office’s detective skills. I started first with an envelope sent to my home address with a hand-drawn map and a drop pin as to where it should be delivered. To my disbelief the letter was delivered back the very next day (with only a second-class stamp) and so started a project spanning over 5–6 years where I would occasionally send the odd puzzle to see if it would make its way home.

Knowing of my little hobby, my parent’s bought me a book titled ‘Envelopes’ by illustrator Harriet Russell. She had a very similar project back in 1999 where she sent 130 cryptic envelopes to her home in Glasgow. This book has been of great inspiration to me over the years and has fueled my passion for all things postal.


Unlike Russell’s prolific efforts, I have only sent twenty to thirty different envelopes of this sort. From poems and Morse code to drawing a building’s façade, only two have failed to reach their intended destination. These were an envelope with just my name and a print-out of a google map but the drop pin was slightly in the wrong place. – I’m not surprised those two didn’t make it.

I have always had a huge amount of admiration for the postal service from a very young age but after delivering my letters so successfully I have nothing but huge respect for their workforce. People do think of it as a huge well-oiled machine (which it is) but what I have discovered is that it has a very human spirit. A company with a personality is far more interesting than the faceless corporates we so often see. This is embodied in the way that the envelopes come back to me so often with smiley faces or penned scribbles from the sorting office. – A great personal touch.


By far the best response was an envelope that read: ‘Dear Royal Mail, Please choose one of the following people who most deserves this envelope.’ Then underneath were three different friend’s addresses with a small biography about each one. Remarkably, when one of my friends finally received the letter it had a whole conversation scrawled across the front as it traversed the country. ‘No, this one…’ ‘No, no this guy’ it read. The chosen friend had a giant heart drawn around his head in pink crayon. Brilliant.

Puzzles for Postmen from James Addison.

I have since decided to give my local sorting office a break and have stopped sending cryptic mail for now in favour of clearly marked addresses. However, this small project has definitely proven that we have one of the best postal services in the world. No other mail company would embrace poorly labelled envelopes with such eccentricity and commitment to deliver everything that comes their way.

For more information about my project please visit: http://www.jamesaddison.co.uk/#/puzzles-for-postmen/

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

Visit to the Postal Museum Store

Photography student Stuart Matthews has written this guest blog for us…

On Saturday 6th April I ventured to Loughton, Essex to visit The British Postal Museum Store for the Pillar Box Perfection open day. Currently studying photography at the University of Bedfordshire, I’m now in my final year working on my final major project. The visit was in aid of my university project ‘POST’ a project which looks at pillar boxes and how my generation rarely write any more.

"Pillar box alley" at The British Postal Museum Store.

“Pillar box alley” at The British Postal Museum Store.

We live in an age now where we are constantly tuned into our digital social lives by texting, instant messaging and emailing. In my generation the everyday analogue process of posting a letter is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Postboxes lie dormant, statues and monuments of a bygone era. Fond of analogue tradition I decided I wanted to get myself and as many people involved as possible mailing postcards in the form of photographs.

The premise is simple:

  1. Take a photograph of a pillar box (Has to be taken landscape)
  2. Get the photo printed at the 6×4 (Postcard size)
  3. Once printed, write directly on the back of the photograph (Write whatever comes to mind, your thoughts on pillar boxes, maybe the digital age, something personal? A quote, or song lyrics? Maybe describe the location of the photo?)
  4. Then stick on a stamp, add my address and send it to me in the post:
    166 Vandyke Road
    Leighton Buzzard
    LU7 3HS
Postcard showing a Queen Elizabeth II wall box.

Postcard showing a Queen Elizabeth II wall box.

By getting people to photograph postboxes I hope to create a large topology to showcase the results, which will I hopefully display in a gallery space. For the time being I’ve set up a blog site where I’ve regularly up load all the entries sent to me. Which you can visit here: www.thegreatpostproject.wordpress.com.

As I love a challenge, I am hoping that my project will make people take notice of postboxes again and in the grander scheme get younger people involved in writing letters and postcards. Although it may be wishful thinking, only time will tell.

Postcard showing the message "What's the Rush!!".

Postcard showing the message “What’s the Rush!!”.

The open day at The British Postal Museum Store was a great way to learn more about the history of the pillar box. Discovering the different types whilst being able to identify them I found it to be a rewarding experience. It really has helped me, by giving me a historical outlook which I can now apply to the project.

The staff were tremendously helpful giving talks throughout the day, and answering all my questions. A big thank you to those who work and are involved in The British Postal Museum & Archive you generosity hasn’t been unnoticed.

Their generosity also allowed me to visit London this week to participant in my very own From Pillar to Post: GPO London walking tour as I was unable to go last month! (It was only natural that I dropped in to say Hello at the Royal Mail Archives)

If you are reading this and feel intrigued by my project feel free to visit the POST blog site and get involved, and last but not least please do visit the The British Postal Museum Store when you can, it is worth it!

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.

Pedal Powered Postmen from the Past

From Friday 21st to Sunday 23rd October 2011, Bloomsbury’s open spaces and venues will be coming alive with an amazing programme of dance, music, arts, guided walks, theatre, workshops, talks, secret sessions and much, much more as part of the Bloomsbury Festival 2011. BPMA is delighted to be taking part in this year’s Festival.

Children’s Activities

On Saturday 22 October we will be running sessions throughout the day from the children’s tent in Russell Square. We will be using a vintage postman’s parcel tricycle from the Learning team’s handling collection and offering an array of family activities, including the chance to:

  • Take part in a postal pop quiz
  • Make a craft keepsake to take away
  • Meet a postman from the past
  • Find out more about BPMA

If weather and technology permits, we hope to be able to ride the tricycle around the square to attract attention, with Access and Learning Manager Andy Richmond dressed as a postman from the past. Find out more on the Bloomsbury Festival website.

Our parcel tricycle

Our parcel tricycle

Letter Writing and Mailart

Other events of interest are Letter Lounge, a workshop at the October Gallery to write the letters you never have time for, and 2 to the power of 10, a mailart project at the Orange Dot Gallery bringing together 32 contemporary Bloomsbury artists and creative types.

The Bloomsbury Festival is completely free to attend – we hope to see lots of BPMA support there on the day!

We Love Your Blog

I Love Your Blog awardToday one of our favourite blogs, Quad Royal, declared us a blog they love. As part of accepting this award it is now up to us to name some of our favourite blogs. Here they are, in no particular order:

Pakistan Philatelic Net Club
A regularly updated blog with articles on stamps, coins, banknotes and major auctions.

World Stamp News and Philately News
These blogs are updated all the time, and are a great way to find out about the latest stamp issues around the world.

Machin Mania
An interesting and well-researched blog with Machin enthusiasts (and newcomers) in mind.

Adrian Keppel, a regular contributor to various stamp magazines, blogs about stamps from all over the world, but with a focus on Europe and former British colonies.

Norvic Philatelics
The blog of stamp dealers Norvic Philatelics is a great news source for the latest British issues, and often documents errors.

My Philately
Eric in France collects mint stamps from France and China, all stamps issued in 1966, stamps about frogs and toads, and rugby-themed stamps. He regularly displays gems from his eclectic collection on this blog.

Post Secret
Something a little different (and strictly for adults)…a fascinating art project inviting people to confess their secrets on a handmade postcard.

So Much Pileup
A graphic design-focused blog which celebrates 1960s-1980s stamps on Fridays.

The Philatelic Database
A website and blog with the serious philatelist in mind.

The Stamp Collecting Round-Up
A favourite of many stamp collectors which always offers something different and interesting.

The Wandering Genealogist
John Gasson’s blog chronicling his research into his family tree. John also blogs about postcards, maps and walking.

Pushing the Envelope
The Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s blog – well written and informative.

Letter Writer’s Alliance, Bashfully Designed and The Missive Maven
Stamps, mailart, ephemera, design, stationery…these three creative blogs will inspire you to send beautiful, handmade letters and cards to your friends.

An exploration of vintage postcards.

Picture Post in Swindon

The Picture Post project has moved to Swindon! On Saturday 6th November, Andy from the BPMA travelled west to introduce the project to participating families from the Swindon area.

The Platform Youth Centre was the venue for the morning, and our base was an old First Class train carriage. The building used to house the railway museum, prior to their move across the tracks to become STEAM.

An old First Class train carriage, now the Platform Youth Centre

An old First Class train carriage, now the Platform Youth Centre

Seats were very nearly fully-booked for the session, as around 15 people crammed into the carriage, and listened to Andy talk about the BPMA, our collections, and the photographs from the Royal Mail Archive that are the focus of the Picture Post project.

First up, Andy asked some eager volunteers to dress up as post people from the past, using a variety of uniforms from the BPMA Handling Collection.

Imogen, sporting a peaked postman’s cap from the GPO era

Imogen, sporting a peaked postman’s cap from the GPO era

Andy went on to talk about some of the more unexpected items we have in the BPMA collection, including blunderbusses and cutlasses, and then handed out just a few examples of the thousands of photos we have that show the work of the Post Office during the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

Each person picked a favourite photo and thought about why they liked it. Esina was taken by this image of Chailey Post Office, particularly the familiar logo of Cadburys in the window.

Exterior view of Chailey Post Office, with a telephone box situated alongside, 1937

Exterior view of Chailey Post Office, with a telephone box situated alongside, 1937

Sheena, Sally and (the other) Andy from Artsite then took over the session, and asked the group to make collages using photocopies of the Archive images and a pile of other materials, including old stamps, elegant ink-pen script, stickers, patterned paper, and feathers.

Inside the train carriage, the group cutting and pasting.

Inside the train carriage, the group cutting and pasting.

Girls working on collages.

Girls working on collages.

Some of the marvellous works produced by the Picture Post-ers can be seen below, and the rest can be seen on Flickr.

Carinae's collage

Carinae's collage

Moesha's collage

Moesha's collage

Simone's collage

Simone's collage

Last Saturday, the group took a guided tour of the Swindon Mail Centre, and were taught to think like a photographer by the guys from Artsite. Some of the photos they took, of sorting machines, vehicles and postal workers, are now on Flickr. They will also be turned into postcards.

For more information about the work that Sheena, Sally and Andy do in providing a hub for the Swindon community to engage in, understand and appreciate contemporary art and culture, please visit the Artsite website, or visit the Post Modern Gallery (a converted Post Office) in Theatre Square, Swindon.