Tag Archives: photography

‘Wish you were here’: 145 years since the first postcard

On this day, 145 years ago, the British public were first introduced to the postcard. As eagerly anticipated as the latest technology upgrades are today, 75 million were sent in the first year alone. 

However, they were a far cry from the ‘Wish You Were Here’ holiday scenes which primarily make up today’s postcards. Instead they were rather dull: the address was written on one side with the reverse left blank for the message. No other writing was allowed on the address side in case it obscured the address and led to the item being incorrectly delivered. Moreover, the postcard was introduced to benefit businesses as a time saving device rather than to share tales of holiday adventures. Mr Lundy of the North British Colour Company in Leith argued that a postcard:

“would save a vast amount of trouble…to the Post Office & also a large amount of valuable time which is daily wasted by large firms like ourselves who have many envelopes to open covering information which really is of no consequence as to whom it may be read by.”[1]

Original postcard design - no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post

Original postcard design – no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post!

By 1890 both publishers and the public were eager to make better use of the postcard. They suggested the introduction of a divided back, in other words, confining the address, if wished, to just a half of a side freeing up the rest of a card for a drawing or a longer message. Eventually the Post Office agreed on the condition that any extra designs or remarks did not “Lead to any practical embarrassment of the Officers of the Post Office” and so in 1894, the picture postcard was born.

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Soon cartoons and photographs adorned the fronts of postcards which were now very much the piece of social mail that we know today. With the turn of the new century in 1900 the craze for sending and collecting postcards went into overdrive. From country landscapes to cheeky seaside scenes, from political cartoons to photographs of major events the picture postcard was used the country over to share news, opinions and events, broadening people’s knowledge of the country and the world.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.  Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.
Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Whilst a picture might paint a thousand words, the messages on postcards were still an important aspect. As an open form of communication postcards can be fascinating objects. Looking back at postcards written decades ago the messages they carry can often seem cryptic if you were not the sender or receiver.  For example, one postcard in our collection sent to Miss M. Bright just says ‘How many ghosts did you meet last night. Will this do for your collection’ My imagination immediately conjures up a scene whereby Miss Bright is an Edwardian ghostbuster! The impact of the postcard as a more open form of communication is still felt today, whether we realise it or not, in the many texts and tweets we send around the world.

A very

A very spooky postcard…

But people also developed a myriad of ways to convey messages privately on postcards that the interested eye of the postman wouldn’t see.  This could be through the message itself, written perhaps in mirror writing or in a coded alphabet, or sometimes in an adaptation to the postcard itself. For example many people starting ‘tilting’ the stamp, leading to many variations known as The Language of Stamps. As with the Language of Fans the position of the stamp could convey a plethora of meanings, from ’I love you’ to ‘I don’t want to see you again’, it was adapted many times over.

Postcards showing the 'Language of Stamps'

Postcards showing the ‘Language of Stamps’

I hope this brief outline of the origins of postcards 145 years ago will inspire you to keep sending postcards to friends and family across the world and perhaps next time you send one, you’ll tilt your stamp or use your own secret message.

– Emma Harper, Curator

[1] The Royal Mail Archive, BPMA, POST 30/319A

World Photography Day: Documenting the build

Today is Photography Day, celebrating the photographers and the stories they capture. Here at the BPMA, we have approximately 100,000 photographs in our collections. As we ramp up to open The Postal Museum and Mail Rail, photography is playing an even more crucial role, documenting the transformation of our physical spaces.

Demolition has started at The Postal Museum site and we are eagerly waiting to get started in Mail Rail. Below are a few  photos of the building that will become our new home. The first showing it in its former glory in the early 20th century, the other’s what it looked like a couple months ago before demolition work began.

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An early photograph of Calthorpe House (the building that will become The Postal Museum)

The back of Calthorpe House (early 2015)

The back of the museum site (early 2015)

A rather treacherous hall way with raised flooring.

A rather treacherous hall way with raised flooring.

Fast forward to earlier this summer, photographer Miles Willis joined us to document the first couple of weeks of the strip-out and demolition of The Postal Museum building and the untouched Mail Rail.

Remember that back wall from above? Well its been demolished in preparation for our new archive repository!

Remember that back wall from above? Well it’s been demolished in preparation for our new archive repository! Copyright The British Postal Museum & Archive/Miles Willis

 

Stripped away to its bare-bones!

Stripped away to its bare-bones! Copyright The British Postal Museum & Archive/Miles Willis

Work hasn’t started at Mail Rail (yet!) but Miles has documented this amazing space as it is now.

Looking up the incline into the Depot Space. Visitors will travel along the same tracks! Copyright The British Postal Museum & Archive/Miles Willis

Looking up the incline into the Depot Space. Visitors will travel along the same tracks! Copyright The British Postal Museum & Archive/Miles Willis

Trains parked along Mount Pleasant platform. Visitors will be able to pass along this platform on the ride! Copyright The Postal Museum/Miles Willis

Trains parked along the Mount Pleasant platform. Visitors will be able to pass along this platform on the ride! Copyright The Postal Museum/Miles Willis

Visitors will get to experience a piece of underground London never open to the general public. Copyright The British Postal Museum & Archive

Visitors will get to experience a piece of underground London never before open to the general public. Copyright The British Postal Museum & Archive/Miles Willis

As we get closer and closer to opening, we will have much more to share! Stay tuned and up-to-date by checking out our dedicated project website and joining our enewsletter list.

Adventures in Digital

Hello, my name’s Rose and I’m a student at University College London, where I’m studying for an MA in Digital Humanities. As part of my course I spent ten weeks completing a placement at the BPMA, working with Martin, the Head of Digital, and Rachel, the Digital Media Manager.

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One of the main projects I worked on involved creating 3D models of items from the museum collections using photogrammetry, which I wrote about previously. I’d already learnt a little about the techniques involved, and this project gave me some valuable practical experience putting those lessons into action. It was amazing to be given access to photographic equipment and modelling software, and to have the freedom to experiment with different techniques. I benefitted a lot from the Digital Team’s photography knowledge, and I’m very proud of the models our experiments produced! Check them out here: https://sketchfab.com/postal

3D model of Stamp Snake. You can manipulate the model here: https://sketchfab.com/models/8c78b277cb0c4b2c9a3901970c94e2f4

3D model of Stamp Snake. You can manipulate the model here: https://sketchfab.com/models/8c78b277cb0c4b2c9a3901970c94e2f4

Another project involved digitisation work of a different kind, scanning historical maps and documents. A highlight was handling documents related to the sinking of the Titanic, and learning about the Post Office and Mail Room which were on board. This really made me appreciate how unique a resource the BPMA’s collections are.

I also digitised the negatives of maps depicting different postal routes; it was fun to take a small piece of film and digitise it to reveal the detailed and colourful illustrations it held. Digitisation can help preserve the museum and archive collections and make them more accessible; it’s exciting to think these images could help engage people in the story of Britain’s social and communications history.

Newly digitised map ready if needed for The Postal Museum!

Newly digitised map ready if needed for The Postal Museum!

I really enjoyed my time at the BPMA as I was given the opportunity to develop so many new skills and to work on more projects than I have space to mention! I’m interested in seeing how digital technologies continue to play a part in the BPMA’s work, and especially in the new Postal Museum. My placement gave me a valuable insight into life in the museums and heritage sector, and I’m extremely grateful to everyone I met who took the time to talk to me about their role.

Photography mysteries from the Archive Stocktake

The (mostly figurative) dust has settled after our annual Archive Stock Take, when the whole archive team pulls together for a packed two weeks of communing with the collection. Sorting, listing, arranging, appraising, auditing, measuring – basically all the huge or awkward jobs we can’t fit into the rest of the year, but that are becoming ever more important as we prepare to move our collections to their new home at The Postal Museum.

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Adam and Lydianne measuring boxes

As ever, we’ve been left with a few questions that we need to answer – and we’d like your help with them!

One of our tasks was sorting through boxes and boxes of photography, weeding out the prints and negatives that we already had and finding the material relevant to our collections to be preserved. Often we couldn’t find any notes at all about when or where the images came from, so the biggest challenge was to try and work out what it was we were actually seeing.

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Vicky sorting through photography negatives

This is where you come in! Are you able to shed any light on where the following photographs were taken? If so, we’d love it if you could help us to solve our Stock Take mysteries.

  1. This interior shot appears to be the control room for a distribution centre – possibly Reading – but we can’t find any details in the photo that give its location away. With its brightly coloured light panels, I think it has a touch of the Bond villain’s lair about it, but perhaps that’s just me…

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  1. These shots were found together and seem to be of the same rather quirky-looking building. We think it might be one of the first out-of-town sorting offices, purpose-built to house mechanised sorting equipment. Despite its unusual character, even our expert on Post Office architecture, volunteer Julian Osley, is stumped about where it might be.

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  1. Similarly, we came upon these three photos together and they appear to be from the same site. Those fun-looking slides are in fact Safeglide Spiral Chutes, which are specially-designed to allow items added from different levels to work their way down at a controlled speed. We’ve had one suggestion as to where these photos may have been taken – the Parcel Concentration Office at Washington, County Durham (thank you, @RogerEvansAM!) – but any further wisdom would be appreciated.

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So there we have it. If you can use your knowledge or detective skills to figure out where any of these were taken – or if you can tell us anything about their contents – please jump right in and comment below, email info@postalheritage.org.uk or tweet us!

-Ashley March, Archives and Records Assistant

 

Experiments in Photogrammetry

Recently we experimented with producing a set of 3D models of items from the collection using a process called photogrammetry. Rose Attu, a Digital Humanities MA Student from UCL, who’s currently on placement at the BPMA, talks us through the process.

To create a 3D model a series of overlapping photographs of a single object are taken from different positions, and then a piece of software is used to triangulate the coordinates of each image and align them, reconstructing the whole object in 3D. With each shot, the digital camera also records metadata including the focal distance between the lens and the object; this enables the software to recreate the position the camera was in when each photo was taken.

Curator Emma Harper holding the stamp snake

Curator Emma Harper holding the stamp snake

The objects we chose were the prosthetic Postman’s Hand and the Stamp Snake. An object covered in a repeating pattern, or one without any distinguishing features at all, will affect the software’s ability to rebuild the depth of an object. Both these objects have plenty of distinctive features, so the software could detect the details from photo to photo and build accurate models without distortions.

Postman's prosthetic hand being photographed

Postman’s prosthetic hand being photographed

Our first object was the Postman’s Hand. Once it was in frame and in focus, and evenly lit to avoid shadows, we could begin the capture process. To capture our objects from multiple angles we used a turntable to rotate them through 360°. The turntable was also covered in a distinctive image, which gave the software more common points to identify. The turntable was edited out at a later stage, so that our final models were just of the hand and the stamp snake.

Stamp snake being photographed

Stamp snake being photographed

On average it took 30 photos to complete one rotation, after which the camera was raised for a second sequence capturing the object from a higher angle. For more consistent results we kept the camera settings the same until a rotation was complete, and used a tripod and remote shutter release to keep the camera static. We output the raw image data as a set of TIFFs and corrected the white balance, and then our images were ready to be transformed.

Based on the estimated camera positions and the details in the images, the software built a point cloud, which is essentially a 3D model made up of dots. It then added a more detailed polygonal mesh layer representing the object surface. The final step was to add the textures; because we photographed our objects in high resolution, even the tiniest details were visible on the final models.

Snapshot of the 3D model of the stamp snake. Manipulate the model on Sketchfab.

Snapshot of the 3D model of the stamp snake. Manipulate the model on Sketchfab!

We were surprised with how little effort and technology it took, and the results were fantastic!  For our set-up we used:

  • Lazy Susan turntable with a nonrepeating pattern on it
  • Digital SLR camera and tripod
  • Light box or tent
  • Studio lights or some source to help get rid of shadows
  • Photogrammetry software – we used Agisoft which was great and you get a 30 day free trial

Have a go yourself– we would love to see your models!

– Rose Attu

Stamps: Why the Portrait?

As an Art Historian (now Philatelic Assistant) I have always been fascinated by the portrait and a stamp in itself is a miniature piece of art. To understand why the Queen’s head appears as it does on GB stamps we need to first understand the significance of the portrait historically.

Some of the earliest profile portraits were produced by the Romans for their coins and medals.  Images of the Emperors illustrated their power and importance and thus the profile became synonymous with these characteristics. It was also a way of distributing the face of their leader, who many would never have seen.

Roman Coin

Roman Coin

We can see the influence of these artefacts in the work of Renaissance artists who tried to recreate this sense of power in their portraits of the wealthy. This is evident in the portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife by Piero della Francesca who are both depicted in profile facing one another. Yet this composition had to be used as the Duke had previously lost his right eye in a tournament. You can also see the significance of the medal in Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo De Medici’ c.1474-75.

Piero della Francesca 'Duke of Urbibo' c1467-1470

Piero della Francesca ‘Duke of Urbino’ c.1467-1470

Sandro Botticelli 'Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder' c1474-75

Sandro Botticelli ‘Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder’ c.1474-75

However the initial portrait of Queen Elizabeth II used for postage was not in fact a profile. Instead it was a three quarter view of Her Majesty photographed by Dorothy Wilding in 1952. Though adequate as a Definitive stamp –  the Wilding design was found to be overly challenging for many stamp designers as it took up to one third of the stamp’s area and subsequently compromised the design of the stamp.

Wilding High Value Definitives 1955

Wilding High Value Definitives 1955

As a solution to this problem Tony Benn (Post Master General 1964-66) along with designer David Gentleman introduced the idea of removing the Queen’s head altogether. Initial ideas were produced, however in 1965 the Queen decided she wished to remain on the stamp. This led to the small profile silhouette on commemorative stamps being used instead, reminiscent of those produced in the 18th century of the English high society.

1965 Churchill Commemorative

Churchill Commemorative without the Queen’s Head 1965

A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century

A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century

To produce a profile portrait of the Queen, The Royal Mail approached the British sculptor Arnold Machin. He took inspiration from the simplicity of the Penny Black portrait, which was based on a medal of Queen Victoria by William Wyon. This again acknowledges the historical importance of the profile.

Arnold Machin Plaster Cast

Arnold Machin Plaster Cast

William Wyon Medal

William Wyon Medal

The image of the Queen we see today is not only practical for producing stamps but also evokes the idea of power and importance, circulating her image to the nation. The significance of the portrait on a stamp is not merely a representation of the person but as a symbol of their significance. Commemorative stamps elevate the importance of an individual by allowing them to feature prominently on the stamp, though the Queen still remains dominant as the accompanying silhouette.

Winston Churchill 1st (October 14 2014)

Winston Churchill 1st NVI (October 14 2014)

Next time you see a photograph of yourself have a think what you would look like on a postage stamp?

– Georgina Tomlinson Philatelic Assistant.

Two BPMA touring exhibitions open in Aberystwyth

Two of our touring exhibitions (Designs on Delivery and The Post Office in Pictures) are both on display at Aberystwyth Arts Centre starting tomorrow (18 January) until early March.

Designs on Delivery

Design played a crucial role in promoting social progress and technological change across Britain between 1930 and 1960. General Post Office (GPO) posters were commissioned in the context of specific channels of communication. Posters were designed for Post Office walls, pillar boxes and transport vehicles.

POST1103184

Post your letters before noon, Jan Lewitt and George Him, 1941 (POST 110/3184).

The exhibition posters offer a variety of visual language adopted to meet these different needs. GPO posters included work by those associated with both fine art and graphic design, demonstrating the blurring of the boundaries between high art and popular culture that poster design encouraged.

This exhibition showcases 25 of the best of these posters.

POST110_3177

Air Mail Routes, Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1937 (POST 110/3177) .

The Post Office in Pictures

The Post Office in Pictures is an exhibition showcasing a selection of inspiring images sourced from the BPMA’s vast collections.

Photography was one of the key tools used by the GPO PR Department (est. 1934) to reach and engage with the general public. In order to supply its fledgling Post Office Magazine with professionally-produced photographs, members of the GPO Photographic Unit began to accompany the magazine’s journalists.

Down Wapping Way, 1935 (POST 118/252).

Down Wapping Way, 1935 (POST 118/252).

The exhibition showcases 30 outstanding photographs from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Also available to read alongside the exhibitions will be copies of the Post Office Magazines, from which many of these photographs are drawn.

The Post Office in Pictures and Designs on Delivery both open on Saturday 18 January at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and run until Saturday 8 March. Entry is free of charge and open to all.

Please let us know if you do visit the exhibitions, on dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk, 0207 354 7287, or @postalheritage. We hope you enjoy your visit!

— Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer