Tag Archives: photos

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.

Under the Bonnet of the BPMA’s Online Catalogue

Here at the BPMA we’re making major changes to the way our online catalogue looks – and works. There will be more details soon, but today I’ll show you three of our planned improvements:

1. Streamlined Catalogue Data

Matt's been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Matt’s been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Since February I’ve been fine-tuning the data and structure of the entire BPMA catalogue. I’ve refined old catalogue entries to bring them into line with our current descriptive standards. I’ve rearranged fields to free up space for exciting new content. And I’ve reformatted the way the date is written for every single record in the catalogue. That’s over 120,000 records. I had to use lots of computer tricks to make all these changes in just a few weeks, rather than editing the records one by one. A career in archives can be a really good test of your IT skills!

2. Enhanced Thumbnail Images

We're enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

We’re enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

About 25,000 entries in the catalogue have thumbnails: small photos or scans showing you what the object or record looks like. In 2014 there are more high-resolution computer screens and faster Internet speeds than even a few years ago. We want our online catalogue to have larger, brighter thumbnails than we’ve used until now. Web visitors will be able to see our collections in even more detail.

I’ve been hunting down every digital image of the BPMA’s collections, converting them into new thumbnails at a higher resolution and an increased size.  Wherever possible, our new images will be 700 pixels wide on their shorter side. In the past six weeks I’ve created thumbnails for 22,000 objects and records. Only a few thousand left to go!

3. Improved Online Experience

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

We’re currently finalising the new online catalogue interface. It’ll offer new ways to navigate our collections, including user tagging, and sorting search results by different criteria. You should also be able to browse the entire Archive by its hierarchy (example shown above), which will show how any one record relates to all the others. There’ll be all-new guidance pages for first-time users, which I’m writing this week.

This is my final blog post here, as I’m leaving the BPMA at the end of May. It’s a privilege to have been part of the BPMA’s amazing work.

–  Matt Tantony, Archivist (Catalogue Systems)

Media Matters in the Archive

Last month on the BPMA blog, I wrote about how we catalogue archives. Since then I’ve primarily been working in the areas of the Archive concerned with Post Office media campaigns, PR and communications (POST 108 and POST 118). In this month’s cataloguing update I’ll tell you about some of the challenges presented by this material.

Matt contemplates the range of media types to be catalogued.

Matt contemplates the range of media types to be catalogued.

The picture above shows a sample of (mostly duplicate) archives from the boxes I’m cataloguing in the POST 108 backlog. As you can see, these archives aren’t just paper! I’m cataloguing VHS training videos, audio tapes of press interviews, and reams of promotional publications sent out to staff, business clients, and the press. There are also CD-ROMs containing digital documents. The reel you can see resulted from a 1980s Royal Mail programme to microfilm thousands of paper reports from earlier years, and I’ve got a box of nearly 60 reels to catalogue!

All these relatively new media are at odds with the traditional image of archives as being old and paper-based, but they’re archives all the same. At the moment we still have the technology to access information held on obsolete media like VHS tapes, but how will they be accessed in the future when no one is making devices that play them? In the longer term, it may be necessary to migrate audio/video/digital archives to new media. For now, though, I’m concentrating on cataloguing these hundreds of archives as rapidly as possible, ready for them to be opened in line with the 20-year rule.

A big task for me in the coming weeks is to catalogue several hundred files produced during the publication of Courier, the Royal Mail Group staff magazine that’s still published today. These files are being transferred from the POST 108 backlog to POST 118, joining related archives already on the catalogue, and the work is being ably assisted by our new volunteer Leanne, who joined us in September.

The files contain all the photographs collected during production of each monthly Courier edition in the 1970s and 1980s. The photographs don’t merely illustrate high-level business stories; they were also collected to accompany articles on local news from all over the UK. Best of all, the files include the images that were rejected for publication. Thanks to the Archive, they have escaped oblivion.

A sample of uncatalogued photographic files from the Courier archives.

A sample of uncatalogued photographic files from the Courier archives.

The immediate priority is preservation. As you can see from the image above (a handful of files from one of seven crates!), the photos were originally stored in batches inside office dividers. Some sets of prints, like the one on the bottom left, are still in their original glassine envelopes. This isn’t optimal for long-term preservation – photos can stick together over time – so I’ll need to transfer them to individual polyester pockets stored within acid-free archival folders.

There are cataloguing challenges, too. While many photographs were taken by Post Office staff, many more were simply bought from third-party agencies. It’s not always possible to determine copyright ownership, as some prints are unlabelled. My job as an archivist is helped by the slips attached to many prints, identifying their subjects and the Courier editions for which they were selected. The bottom-right print in the photograph above is an example. Unfortunately, standard practice was apparently to date images by month… but not by year! Ultimately, even after cataloguing is complete, it may be necessary to cross-reference these photographic files with the published Courier editions held in POST 92 to exploit this resource fully.

Repackaged and catalogued Courier photographs. This portrait (POST 118/14028.jpg) shows Dorothy Fothergill, appointed Director of the London Postal Region in 1971.

Repackaged and catalogued Courier photographs. This portrait (POST 118/14028.jpg) shows Dorothy Fothergill, appointed Director of the London Postal Region in 1971.

With hundreds of archives in the POST 108 backlog that need special packaging and cataloguing, there’s a mountain of work to do! Once it’s finished, though, it will enrich the picture of the Post Office’s more recent history. This is just one part of the ongoing cataloguing work being undertaken by colleagues and volunteers at the BPMA.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition

Jonathan Bradley previews his exhibition Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition, which opens at the Royal Mail Archive today.

For three quarters of a century, one of the most successful underground railways in the world transported mail under the busy streets of London until its service was suspended in 2003. It remained largely unknown to the general populous aboveground.

Waiting in the dark - 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Waiting in the dark – 1930s car in the siding. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

The Post Office Railway (AKA Mail Rail) is a unique and remarkable infrastructure, being the only dedicated driverless mail haul railway in the world. It came to my attention some two years ago while surveying for another framework environment for the ongoing People : Space work. People : Space is a human spatial study and finding appropriate environments to deliver an artistic treatment to is not an easy task. However, the Mail Rail had the necessary attributes and photography began in 2011.

Descent to the Mount - Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Descent to the Mount – Twin tunnel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

People : Space encourages viewers to look at spaces and areas that are or can be occupied by humans and visa-versa. Photographically capturing space is very challenging and this project often projects vistas that indirectly depict this. Frequently, the humanity element can be suggested. Within each of these pictures lies a distinct, tangible thread of humanity and though the photographs present and record a view of the railway in a quiescent state, the subtle compositional detail of the images lean the eye to regard these degrees of freedom – spaces that contained workers, movement and sound.

Relay board - 'Blue' relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Relay board – ‘Blue’ relay board photograph. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Consider the sound of footsteps, the noise of trains, mail being unloaded off conveyors and cherrys being clicked. Think of the people who walked the platforms, who loaded mailbags, the engineers and fitters tirelessly working in the car shed above Mount Pleasant Station, the section controllers shuffling levers and moving trains and the line crews who worked during maintenance hours who serviced the railway that is now dormant and silent. Contrast what was before with what you see today and consider these People and their Spaces.

Unable to Accept - Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Unable to Accept – Green and Yellow lights with acceptor panel. Image ©Bradley Photography, Northumberland.

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition is on display in The Royal Mail Archive, London. Entry is free.

A selection of exclusive prints signed by Jonathan Bradley are available from the BPMA online shop.

On the map, the History Pin map

Hello, I’m Nicola and I’ve been volunteering for the BPMA since the end of January. It has been such a fantastic experience for me so I wanted to write a little blog to share what I have been working on. Interestingly, I gained my volunteer position at the archives because my cousin had put out message on twitter asking about volunteer opportunities to which Martin Devereux, our digital content manager replied, so I am as grateful to her as to Martin and everybody else at the BPMA. I have been very lucky with this volunteer placement because it has allowed me to explore my two greatest passions in life, history and photography, in an area that I had been previously unfamiliar with, that of postal history.

Postman delivering mail to a large group of hop pickers, Kent, 1935. (POST 118/467)

Postman delivering mail to a large group of hop pickers, Kent, 1935. (POST 118/467)

When I first came to volunteer at the BPMA, Martin talked to me about a few different areas that I could potentially work on but I told him I wanted to do all of them. So I have spent the past few weeks scanning, cataloguing and rehousing glass plate negatives, tagging and creating labels for online photographs, researching a couple of mysterious Victorian albums and other general archiving tasks, including working with the CALM collections database. Alongside these more recent activities, I also dedicated my first few sessions to promoting the BPMA on History Pin. This website is a photographic archive which allows organisations to share their photograph collections with the public.

Each organisation has its own channel on the website where it can upload photographs and then attach them to Google’s map to show where the photograph was taken. Each photograph or ‘pin’ can then be overlayed on top of Google Street View, allowing the public to compare the location with the original photograph. This is enhanced with the sliding tool which changes the opaqueness of the photograph on top to reveal the Google image underneath; I had great fun playing with this!

The photographs that I uploaded from the postal heritage archives depict a variety of places and people ranging from a postman delivering mail at Dover Castle to a mail van parked next to Loch Lomond in Scotland. I uploaded photographs that I thought were either visually appealing or had an interesting subject matter (or both) and had great fun searching through the archives.

Mail van by Loch Lomond. (POST 118/134)

Mail van by Loch Lomond. (POST 118/134)

As well as these singular photographs I also created three collections of photographs connected to certain subjects and events. One contained images relating to transport in postal history, another was about the opening of the Mersey tunnel in 1934 and my favourite one was about delivering mail to the hop farms in Kent. I was very pleased to hear that the first photograph from this collection was made ‘pin of the day’ a few days after I uploaded it and appeared on the Historypin homepage.

Postman delivering mail to Dover Castle. The postman, standing in front of his mail van, hands mail to a soilder. A young boy stands next to the men, pointing at the postmans mail bag. 1935. (POST 118/421)

Postman delivering mail to Dover Castle. The postman, standing in front of his mail van, hands mail to a soilder. A young boy stands next to the men, pointing at the postmans mail bag. 1935. (POST 118/421)

It has been such a great experience to volunteer at the BPMA and I have learnt so much about archiving and all the different roles in an organisation such as this. It has definitely inspired me to consider archiving, especially if related to photography in my future career.

Join the BPMA on History Pin today!

GPO Britain in pictures

The BPMA is the custodian of a photographic collection which includes about 100,000 individual photographs; the earliest is from the late 19th century and the latest ones date from the 1990s. In a previous blog on our photography collection and a talk now available as a podcast we have presented some of this fascinating material and the stories behind it, and our exhibition The Post Office in Pictures features some of the most striking images.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The photographs depict life in Britain at the time of the General Post Office (GPO) with its contrasts between modern urban areas and the industrial heartland, and the remote rural regions where the postman or postwoman presented a vital connection to the outside world. We have selected six of the most intriguing images for a new postcard set which is now available from the BPMA Shop.

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Many of these photographs have been published in the Post Office Magazine (POST 92), which was first issued in 1934 in order to promote postal services and good relations with the public, aimed at the large postal workforce, their families and friends. The articles often presented the modernity and efficiency of the GPO’s services, such as the Post Office Savings Bank – “Everybody’s Bank” with ten million accounts, according to the author of an article in the September 1935 issue. The story on the bank, which holds “the small savings of ordinary not-very-wealthy folk in the hamlets and towns and cities of Britain”, is accompanied by several images of banking clerks entering the 120,000 daily transactions in the newly adopted accounting machines. The clerks’ efficiency in dealing with the amount of correspondence and day to day business clearly impressed the author – he dubs them ‘super clerks’.

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

Other sections of the magazines were regularly dedicated to news from the different UK regions. These focussed on the local postal staff and their achievements, activities and work in their local community, which, to today’s readers, provides some authentic insights into rural British communities in the 1930s and 1940s. The October 1938 Northern Ireland section, for example, features the image of a postman with a pony and trap on a rural road: “The Glenarm Bay postman goes on his delivery in a trap presented to him by local residents” (POST 118/903).

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Other issues show postmen wading through rivers on horseback (January 1939) to reach the next village or town, or recount the peculiar history of whale bones decorating the post office exterior at Cley-next-the-Sea (March 1938).

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

The GPO Britain postcard set is now available from the BPMA Shop for £3.75.

Subscribe to the BPMA e-newsletter now and receive exclusive reader offers with free postage or special discounts for this and other new products regularly to your inbox.

Put Your Stamp on the New Centre Exhibition Space

We have been working hard with our appointed creative designers Haley Sharpe Design on early plans for the main exhibition space of the Calthorpe House New Centre. The 500m2 gallery will be split into five zones, each covering an era of postal history.

Zone 1 will look at the early days of the Royal Mail, with the BPMA’s 18th Century Mail Coach as its centrepiece, whilst in Zone 2 visitors will meet Rowland Hill – a visionary Victorian, who devised solutions to the short-comings of the postal service in its early days. On display visitors will find a variety of objects and records related to the design of the Penny Black, the world’s first postage, as well as other examples of great Victorian inventions that facilitated the sending and receiving of mail.

Visualisation of Zone 2: "Reform and Innovation".

Visualisation of Zone 2: “Reform and Innovation”.

Between Zones 2 and 3, visitors can read profound and moving stories reflecting events from postal history during the early 20th Century, such as the story of the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic, the suffragettes who posted themselves to the Prime Minister, and the role of the Post Office during WWI.

Visualisation of Zone 3: "The Post Office in Conflict".

Visualisation of Zone 3: “The Post Office in Conflict”.

In Zone 3, visitors will step into a reconstruction of life in WWII London, whilst Zone 4, by contrast, will present a bright, visual feast, vividly demonstrating the time from the 1930s to the 1960s when the Post Office was a leader in style and design in Britain.

Visualisation of Zone 4: "Style and Design".

Visualisation of Zone 4: “Style and Design”.

Zone 5 will consider the modern Post Office, including the competition and challenges of 21st Century Communications, as well as the role of the service at the heart of isolated rural communities.

Work is currently underway to work up a long-list of objects and records from the Museum and Archive collections to populate the exhibition and illustrate the stories and themes outlined above. Whilst the ‘usual suspects’ (such as items from early Mail Coach Guards and the many photos and posters held in the Archive) are, of course, under consideration, the BPMA are keen to include ‘hidden gems’ that may not have been seen in previous exhibitions – something for which we would like your help…

Tell us which artefacts from the BPMA collections you would like to see on display in the new exhibition!

Blog readers are invited to suggest a museum object or archive record that they would like to see included in the new gallery displays, with an explanation as to why you have chosen that particular item. The best suggestion, as selected by the BPMA Access and Learning Team, will win a signed copy of Julian Stray’s book Mail Trains. Results announced in January.

Please send your suggestions by 30 November 2012 to: Andy Richmond – BPMA Access & Learning Manager, andy.richmond@postalheritage.org.uk.