Postage stamps to wall art

"3d Huia" Stamp
- prints now available
Designers of historical NZ stamps are from the era of "craftsman printmakers" who until recently were routinely dismissed or ignored by art historians who saw printmaking becoming respectable as a fine art form only when painters of fine art began to dabble in it after 1950. A series of historical NZ stamp designs have been released this month in black and white prints at wall art size, closing the circle of the trend in contemporary art for artists to reference retro postage stamp design in their paintings and prints over the past couple of years. And revisiting the designs shows clearly that early craftsman printmakers such as LC Mitchell were producing attractive and superbly composed artworks within the constraints of the commercial imperatives of the time.

New Zealand: Phantom Country
Lester Hall "Postage Stamp" series print
The conventions of (albeit much enlarged) postage stamp design have been explored recently in the work of several contemporary NZ artists (most infamously with Bay of Islands printmaker Lester Hall whose now iconic postage stamp design prints started with the Phantom series shown here). In fact the postage stamp style print has, we think, become a veritable trend (see Weston Frizzell's Four Seasons series print "Aotearoa" , the work of Jane Crisp, some of Timo's artwork etc).  But until the arrival this month of a series of prints enlarging historical NZ postage stamp designs into art prints we hadn't realised that prints of the actual stamps would work well as wall art - or that the designers of early stamps in NZ were often the very same men responsible for NZ's golden age of tourism and travel poster art.

The black and white prints of the Tui, Wahine, Tuatara from 1935 and the 8d and Huias stamp from the 1898 pictorials work remarkable well at wall art size (approximately half a metre square) and bring to light glorious examples of early NZ design that were previously only seen by stamp collectors.

The story behind the second set of "New Zealand Pictorials" issued in May 1935 began with a design competition that received over 1500 entries, the work of 11 designers was selected for the final designs.  The design competition was announced by the secretary of the Post Office department, G McNamara in the following terms (for the source of this transcript and other background information on the 1935 pictorials we gratefully acknowledge painter Mark Wooller's excellent website New Zealand Stamps.)

Designs for New Issue of Postage-Stamps

Designs are invited, in accordance with the specifications and conditions below, for a new issue of postage and revenue stamps for the Dominion of New Zealand, ranging in approximately fifteen denomonations from 1/2d. to 3s.

1. The design of each stamp must include a representation of characteristic or notable New Zealand scenery or genre, or industrial, agricultural, or pastoral scene: otherwise, the design may be of any pattern, provided the words "New Zealand Postage and Revenue" in Roman characters and the value in words, or in Arabic figures, or in figures and words, are plainly shown.

3. The design proper should be coloured, but uncoloured drawings or enlargements may accompany them. Photographs of any kind are excluded.

5. The designs are to sent under cover of a pseudonym, or a motto, accompanied by the name of the sender enclosed in a sealed envelope bearing the same assumed title outside….Each design is to be accompanied also by a concise description thereof.

6. A special board, on which there will be a representative or representatives of Art, as well as representatives of the Government Department concerned, will be set up to adjudicate on the merits of the designs submitted: and a price of 25 pounds will be paid for each design that is adopted for a stamp of the proposed series.

Print of L.C. Mitchell's 1935 stamp design
Leonard Cornwall Mitchell, who designed classic 1930s era NZ tourist and publicity posters (most readers would recognise his famous posters advertising, for example, destinations such as Mt Cook, Mt Egmont and Milford Sound) was eventually commissioned for four of the 14 stamp designs, a remarkable feat considering the number of entries and the anonymity of the submitters. One of his winning designs (for the 8d Tuatara) is pictured at left and the Maori Girl (3d Wahine), also the work of LC Mitchell, shown below right is remarkably similar to the figure depicted in his "New Zealand For Your Next Holiday" poster design from the 1920s.

Wellington's Evening Post newspaper reported on the day of the pictorials release under the headline The New Stamps: Rush to Purchase - Favourable Comments. 

3d Maori Girl
Prints released
"An unprecedented rush set in at the post offices this morning on the part of those desirous of purchasing specimens of the new pictorial stamps which were on sale for the first time today. At 8 a.m. there was a queue of buyers outside the C.P.O. [Central Post Office], and from that hour onwards sales were very brisk." Officials, readers were told, were prepared but "the lot of the vendor was hardly lightened by the ocassional incursion of the would-be wag who talked in terms of Tuataras, fantails, tuis or swordfish, rather than in terms of the more prosiac shillings and pence."  Comments from buyers such as "The stamps were far better than I thought they would be" were recorded and the article concluded that "From a New Zealander's point of view the new set is undoubtedly decidedly interesting, and it is a splendid example of the stamp-makers art".

Illustrating this article are three of the new large prints of postage stamp designs that are now in stock at NZ Fine Prints. They are really effective decoration at wall art size - historical/retro black and white NZ designs that are real, authentic visual artifacts from New Zealand's history with an impeccable design pedigree.

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