Sunday 29 November 2020

Advent 1: Post Early For Christmas

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, so for this and the next three Sundays I’ll write about Christmas, as in previous years. This year we’ll have a look at some Christmas traditions, most of them literary, and their lgbt connections.

Christmas will be different this year and a lot of traditional seasonal activities may have to be dropped, or at the very least socially distanced. Thankfully, one Christmas tradition can still be enjoyed – sending and receiving Christmas cards.

In an era when people are too lazy to go out and buy a card, write a message, buy a stamp and post the envelope the Christmas card and postage stamp are in danger of disappearing, despite them being more environmentally friendly and having a lower carbon footprint than email, text or electronic message (according to research by the brother of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet).

My opinion is that Christmas cards are more personal than a third-party electronic agent. It proves you care enough to make the effort to post it and it actually has your DNA on it, and you can’t get more personal than that – it’s the nearest you can get to physical contact.

Most nations, those of significant Christian heritage at least, have been producing Christmas postage stamps for almost 80 years. The UK was a little late in joining the trend, which is strange considering the UK invented the postage stamp. I can remember the very first UK Christmas stamp because it was the winning entry in a competition held by the UK’s most popular children’s programme at the times, “Blue Peter” (which holds the Guinness World record for the most consecutive annual Christmas editions of any television programme in the world – 61 and still counting). Since 1966 the Royal Mail has issued Christmas stamps every years, and “Blue Peter” has often revealed the designs on their programme.

Back in September I wrote about lgbt designers of postage stamps. To my knowledge only one lgbt artist has designed a Christmas stamp for the Royal Mail, and that was Enid Marx (1902-1998) in 1976, the tenth anniversary year of the UK Christmas stamp. Enid produced four designs, each one based on medieval English embroideries of the Opus Anglicanum school. This is a name given to the best silk and precious metal-thread embroideries produced in London in the 12th to 14th centuries.

Enid’s designs were inspired by scenes of the Nativity that appeared on several ecclesiastical vestments and decorative panels from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection of Opus Anglicanum embroideries. She submitted rough designs to the Royal Mail Stamp Advisory Committee in October 1975 when the decision was made to base the 1976 stamps on embroidery. Enid then submitted preliminary sketches to the committee on 12th February 1976 and these were approved.

What I thought I’d do was show how Enid went about designing her stamps. It’s not as straight forward as you think. First you have to consider the scale. A highly detailed image will not look clear on a small postage stamp. Then you have to think about where the price and the Queen’s head (or name of country, if you’re designing for another nation) are going to go. In the examples below you can see how Enid changed the original design to fit the requirements of the stamp. Some of he images below are copyright to either the Royal Mall or the Victoria and Albert Museum and are used purely to show the design process. The examples I’ll give are of the lowest and highest denomination of Enid’s Christmas stamps.

The lowest denomination, the 6½ pence stamp, features the Virgin and Child. This comes from the central point of the Clare Chasuble, a vestment made around 1272 or shortly afterwards. It was made for the marriage of Prince Edmund of England, the Earl of Cornwall and grandson of King John, to Lady Margaret de Clare. The separated in 1294, so it couldn’t have been made after that. Here’s the design process.

The image on the left is Enid’s first design, submitted to the Royal Mail Stamp Advisory Committee in 1975. The central image show her sketch for the stamp which she submitted in February 1976. You can see that she changed the dimensions of the image. On the right is the stamp that was issued on 26th November 1967. Compare it to the original design on the left. The price and Queen’s head are not very clear on the original, and have been separated from the image.

The highest denomination stamp was the 13 pence stamp shown below. It depicts the Adoration of the magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men (or third gender priests, as modern scholarship tends to describe them). The design comes from the central point of the Butler-Bowdon Cope, a large vestment worn by clergy like a cloak. It dates from the mid-1300s and belonged to the ancestors of the Butler-Bowdon family of Pleasington Hall in Lancashire. On the left is a close-up of the actual part of the cope Enid used for her design. Her submitted sketch, in the centre, shows the image reversed. I can’t find out why Enid did this. However, the image was switched back for the final design, pictured right. Again the Queen’ head and the price have been placed to one side to make them more visible.

Below are images of the vestments from which the designs were taken. On the left is the Clare Chasuble, on the right is the Butler-Bowdon Cope. I’ve pinpointed the parts of the vestments that Enid chose for her designs with voided white square boxes.

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