Tag Archives: The King’s Stamp

Barnett Freedman, Stephen Tallents and the making of the Jubilee Stamp

by Scott Anthony 

Historians often remember King George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935 as a jamboree, a day when the British collectively bunked off from the economic, political and social strife that beset the nation between the wars.

The Silver Jubilee stamp designed by Barnett Freedman was central to the popular celebrations. Philately played a large part in King George V’s popular appeal, and by an odd twist of fate Jubilee day fell on the 95th anniversary of the launch of the Penny Black. It was apt that King George’s Jubilee stamp would become one of a long 20th century line of everyday collectables.

Less appreciated now is Freedman’s extraordinary artistic ambition. Freedman’s design utilised then cutting-edge printing techniques to give the stamp something approaching a three dimensional texture, while his use of shading was designed to make it appear as if light was emanating from the King’s head. As well as a sentimental appeal, for contemporaries the stamp had an almost sci-fi attraction that attracted a degree of controversy.

George V Silver Jubilee stamps by Barnett Freedman

George V Silver Jubilee stamps by Barnett Freedman

“By taking full advantage of the photogravure process and getting a brilliance of effect hitherto unknown in our stamps”, sniffed The Manchester Guardian, “Freedman has sacrificed what is to some an essential quality of design.” In short, when it came to stamps, the newspaper critics of the day where stuck firmly in the flat earth camp.

However, the popular success of the Jubilee stamp marked an important step towards resurrecting the reputation of the lithograph. Artists like Freedman along with Paul Nash, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Graham Sutherland believed that the lithograph enabled mass production while keeping the artist in close personal touch with his audience. Something of Freedman’s working methods can be seen in the GPO Film The King’s Stamp. As the rhetoric of the day went, “in the modern age good art should not be the exclusive property of museums”.

Under the direction of Sir Stephen Tallents, Britain’s first public relations officer, the General Post Office had similarly sought to imbue everyday objects with rare aesthetic value. From Rex Whistler’s Valentine’s Day Telegram to Giles Gilbert Scott’s Jubilee Telephone Kiosk to the bright bakelite phones Tallents placed in Victor Saville musicals, Freedman’s stamp was part of a wider upsurge of what might be best described as a brief moment of Civil Service idealism.

Tallents’ triumphant commissions had also finally secured Freedman’s public reputation. Born of Jewish Russian émigrés in the East End of London, Freedman had begun attending night school at St Martins aged 15, while by day working on the design of tombstones (for a stone mason) and then war memorials (for an architect). After winning a London County Council arts scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art, Freedman eeked out an existence teaching and designing book covers. Notable successes included Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoir of an Infantryman and several books by Tallents’ friend Walter de la Mere. Indeed, Freedman would later design the Tallents family Christmas card.

The Post Office’s commissions brought Freedman’s methods to a mass national audience and secured the 33 year-old employment from the most far-sighted and prestigious corporate sponsors of modern art in 1930s Britain; London Transport, Shell and Crawford’s advertising agency. Freedman’s exacting style now playfully emphasised the importance of road safety, modern agricultural methods and the importance of beer drinking to sporting success. He also found minor celebrity as the violin player providing the musical accompaniment to William Simonds’ puppet show.

A Barnett Freedman illustration from The Post Office: A review of the activities of the Post Office 1934

A Barnett Freedman illustration from The Post Office: A review of the activities of the Post Office 1934

Most importantly, Tallents professional patronage sealed an ongoing personal relationship with Freedman. Both were part of a generation for whom the 1935 Jubilee was indeed a rare jamboree, as Britain was buffeted by successive wars and economic crisis. Post-war austerity required Freedman’s acceptance of an ever greater teaching load, the pressures of overwork, stress and relative poverty contributing to his untimely death at the age of 57.

Tallents and Freedman shared an interest in Alfred Stevens, a cult hero of British art typically held up at the time as a victim of Victorian vulgarity and short-sightedness. Amongst their last letters Tallents pointed out to Freedman that the flat (in Canning Place, Kensington) where he designed The Jubilee Stamp was adjacent to the one in which Stevens had designed his ill-fated Wellington monument.

It was a quirky and amused exchange, but Freedman could have been forgiven for thinking that not all the comparisons with the “British Michaelangelo from Blandford Forum” were entirely happy ones.

Many thanks to Jeremy Parrett at the Sir Kenneth Green Library, Manchester Metropolitan University for his assistance with this article.

Scott Anthony is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester and author of the BFI Film Classic Night Mail. On 29th October he will be talking about the GPO’s patronage of art, design and film under Tallents at the BPMA.

The GPO Film Unit

From 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for the GPO Film Unit. The films produced during the relatively short existence of the Unit had a major impact on British film, especially in relation to documentary film making. Benjamin Britten, W.H Auden, William Coldstream, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson are just some of the names that appear in the credits.

Night Mail

Night Mail

Made up of a dedicated, largely youthful (Britten was only 22 when he joined in 1935), but badly paid group of individuals the creative impact of the Unit has been immense. The Unit’s existence is credited to Sir Stephen Tallents who transferred it with him when moving from the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), where he had been working to modernise Britain’s image, to the General Post Office (GPO), where he set about doing the same. Tallents retained John Grierson to head up the Unit, and commissioned work from them and other artists as part of an extensive rebranding exercise for the GPO. It was Grierson and later Cavalcanti who were responsible for negotiating many of the complexities of working for a government department. Budgets were small and rigorously enforced to the extent that an overspend on Night Mail (1936) nearly signalled the end of the Unit.

Today the films provide a fascinating insight into the history of communications in the 20th Century and of course, postal history. They include documentary, animation, advertising, public information films, drama-documentary and satirical comedy on a range of subjects, from postal rates to working class pastimes. Some of the films are a reminder of a bygone era and some are still strangely relevant; documenting the difficulties of delivering mail to a flooded village or promoting the Post Office Savings Bank which was secured by government backing in a money sensitive post-depression age.

The films were shown in cinemas and other venues including schools and community halls reaching a very wide audience. As a result of the popularity of stamp collecting The King’s Stamp (1935), commissioned as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V, is apparently one of the most watched films of all time alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Gone with the Wind and King Kong.

There were mixed ambitions behind the unit including using film to advance PR techniques, experimenting with film and sound, and an intent to empower British Citizens with information through film. Grierson’s vision was for a documentary approach to film making where reality was key and where films had a social purpose: ‘It was something altogether new to be looking at ordinary things as if they were extraordinary’. He was later joined by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, who had a reputation for experimenting with sound and music in film and eventually moved on to work at Ealing Studios. The combined presence of Grierson and Cavalcanti led to a hugely innovative period in British film history.

Colour Box

Colour Box

Work by experimental film makers such as Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger meant that the public saw cutting edge film animation used to promote the services of the GPO. Examples include Lye’s 1936 film Rainbow Dance, a film about the Post Office Savings Bank which saw Lye experiment with new ways of using the Gasparcolour film, and Reiniger’s The Torcher (1938). Lye pioneered the technique of painting directly onto film negative in Colour Box (1935), to which he had added a sequence on the introduction of new cheap parcel rates allowing the film to be bought by Grierson for the GPO. This was at a time when colour film was still a novelty so it is hard to imagine what the films must have looked like to audiences at the time.

The influence of contemporary art, especially Surrealism, can be seen in films from the animation Love on the Wing (1938), promoting the new Air Mail service, to N or NW (1937) on the virtues of using the correct post code, although Love on the Wing was later banned by the Postmaster General, who found some of the imagery too ‘Freudian’. Rainbow Dance (1936) was even released in a programme of Surrealist and Avant-Garde films. Cubism was also an influence as was Soviet cinema, as seen in films including Coal Face (1935).

The documentary style saw its high point in the celebrated Night Mail (1936) where the journey of the overnight postal express for Euston to Glasgow is told through the eyes of those who work on the train; making the working man the screen hero. But the realism gives way to drama as the now famous lines of  W H Auden’s poem are read to Britten’s score and the story of those who will receive the mail comes into play with the words ‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border….’.

Grierson’s documentary vision at the Unit gave rise to drama-documentary and the seeds of our modern day soaps can be seen in films including The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937) – seen as the first ‘story’ documentary – and Men of the Lightship (1940).

Britain Can Take It!

Britain Can Take It!

In 1939 the unit began to document and produce films to support the war effort, creating an often poignant portrait of Britain during the early years of World War Two. Films included Britain Can Take It! (1940), produced to provide US President Roosevelt with help in securing American popular opinion for Britain’s war effort, to Men of the Lightship (1940), which was a dramatic reconstruction of the bombing of the East Dudgeon lightship –significant as lightships and lighthouses had previously been considered neutral. In 1940 the GPO Film Unit became part of the Ministry of Information as the Crown Film Unit and with that the GPO Film Unit was no more.

Some of the films produced by the GPO Film Unit are now available on DVD from our Shop.