Marco Ventura’s ‘Old World’ Stamp Illustrations

I spent Labor Day weekend at BALPEX. One highpoint was a display of illustrator Marco Ventura’s (1963- ) work for the Vatican Ufficio Filatelico e Numismatico (Ufn). The Vatican Philatelic Society displayed a multi-panel exhibit of Ventura’s preliminary artwork for several stamps including the composers series—in 2010 stamps marking the birth bicentenary of Schumann and
Chopin and in 2011 the birth bicentenary of Mahler and Liszt.
The essays showed the always-fascinating creative development process, and the artistic unfolding of the Mahler issue in particular drew my attention because the stamp’s profile portrait seems to float above the stamp background.
The display led me to learn more about Ventura who comes from a family of artists. He and his two brothers worked in his father’s studio, and Marco’s training included studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Brera in Milan and a year at the school of Visual Arts in New York.
His illustration process is ‘old world:’ rough sketches are refined until he is satisfied
with the image. He transfers the finished sketch to gesso-coated paper, wood panel or occasionally canvas, as an underpainting, followed by painting in oils and finishing with glazes.
Ventura’s clients are mostly from Europe and the U.S. And in the words of Kenneth Smith, former art director of Time magazine, Ventua  “is a maestro”—a fitting tribute to the illustrator of these composer stamps.
Look closely at Ventura’s stamps for the Vatican, Royal Mail and San Marino and consider his words, “I find it visually intriguing to represent modern and contemporary themes dipped in traditional Renaissance-style technique.”
To learn more about the stamps of the Vatican, check out the Vatican Philatelic Society and/or the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of Vatican City (Ufn).

Let’s cruise.

I don’t know where this ship’s bound, but if I could I’d jump on board. With those colors, rhythmic lines, and roundish ‘whatevers’ in the sky, I foresee an amazing trip. Want to come along? If not, I’ll post a card to you while on board.
This stamp reproduces a painting by Friedrich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), a multi-facited Austrian artist who spent much of his life in Venice and Paris and traveling the world. Hundertwasser’s artistic output, be it painting, illustration, murals or architecture can be an acquired taste, though I jumped on board immediately. His style is organic and dreamlike, described as “…an almost isolated human and artistic sensibility floating in the intangible and mysterious world of sense impressions…” with a “…tendency to perceive ideas and events within a private constellation of meaning, without reference to the supposedly rational structure of organized knowledge…”1
Though Hundertwasser’s artwork has been the basis for stamps from a number of countries, this stamp has an unusual back-story. The painting “Vapor” was created at the invitation of UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to be auctioned to benefit the impoverished nation of Cape Verde. Its use on a postage stamp was meant to draw worldwide attention to the nation. The stamp’s original 10-Escudo value was not issued, but was overprinted in 1985 and sold to enhance development aid.2
About stamps, Hundertwasser had this to say, “I loved postage stamps long before I became a painter. It was a great joy to collect these little coloured pictures, to separate them from the letters which came from far away…They are like venerable objects, like icons.” (Hundertwasser in “Drei Briefmarken für Senegal,” printed in Schöne Wege, Munich 1983.)
1 Chipp, Herschel B., Richardson, Brenda, Hundertwasser ©1968 The Regents of the University of California. (LOC 68-65709, exhibition catalog)

A Rain of Words!

I love stamps! And as a corollary I love mail on which stamps are used. My albums contain mostly ‘used’ stamps, with postmarks indicating “We have liftoff”—a message entered the mail stream on a particular day at a particular place. So for me it was natural to choose the 1993 Letter Writing Day stamps from the Netherlands (favorites of mine) for the first monthly “Featured Stamp” on this website. They were issued September 14 of that year.
I’d long admired the design of these stamps: beautiful colors, airy design, and a sense of words freely flowing. And after 25 years I decided to contact the designer Montse Hernández i Sala and learn more about their creation. She graciously responded to my questions:
What design direction were you given by the PTT?
Very little—only that they needed a design that had to do with writing and mailing. I was left totally free.
Can you tell me about how your graphic ideas evolved?
I wanted to create a “rain of words” falling from the pens and pencils into the envelope. The pencils are bound together, which symbolizes unity in diversity. The little black circles around the envelope playfully suggest an order in which you could draw an envelope without lifting the pen from the paper. It was also a hint about unity—writing as a connecting link between humans. The rain is made out of showing the word “greetings” in different languages. (An interesting aside is that I was pregnant when I was designing these stamps. Initially I added characters that formed the name for a girl and a boy between the other characters. By the end of the designing process I had removed many characters, and only the name for a girl remained. The stamps were published. My child was born soon after. It was a girl.)
What medium did you use for the artwork?
Paint, paper, canvas, glue.
Why did you choose the colors used?
I love blue, black and white—brilliant contrasts. At the end of the process I was asked to use a bit of green in one of the stamps.
Are there other insights into your designs or
design process you would like to share?

To design a stamp was my dream since I became aware of Dutch culture. I was born in Spain and came to the Netherlands at the age of 22. Soon after I graduated as a graphic designer I was asked to design the 1993 Greetings stamps, “WENSPOSTZEGELS” (issued February 2, 1993, shown at right), containing two different designs about “celebrations.” I couldn’t believe my luck! Very soon after that I was asked to design the “TIEN VOOR UW BRIEVEN” stamps (Letter Writing Day). My career as a designer had just started, and I had already accomplished my dream (4X)! This fact opened many doors for my design practice. At the beginning, people thought that I was an illustrator, because of the way I had designed the stamps. But I wasn’t. It required considerable effort to change that perception. Now, after many years of designing, I have come to see what kind of a designer I am. My work balances art and graphic design. I enjoy designing books and catalogues, and I am currently designing to raise awareness about avoiding plastic waste. My project called “RESET” explores that theme and was shown at Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen.

130,000,000,000+ anyone? The 3¢ Jefferson ‘Prexie.’

Stamp collecting began for me as a very young boy with the purple 3¢ Jefferson. It was a scheme of my Mom’s to keep me occupied with ‘busy work.’ She gave me envelopes from the day’s mail (where Jefferson reigned), safety scissors, paste, and cardboard. Cutting Mr. Jefferson from countless envelopes, slicing away perforations with abandon, pasting rows and rows of that bust on cardboard was stamp collecting to me. What a marvelous time I had!

The 3¢ Jefferson was part of the USPOD’s Presidential Issue definitive series (called ‘Prexies’ by many collectors) issued in 1938 that featured all 29 U.S. Presidents through Coolidge. The set also included two fractional-cent denominations with busts of Franklin and Martha Washington, and another featuring of the White House. Face values ranged from ½¢ to $5, so every possible postal usage was covered.

Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Assn.

A national competition was held to determine the design of the series, and the entry by Elaine Rawlinson, a New York artist, was selected. Her 1¢ rendering was based on a bust of Washington (right) by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The 3¢ Jefferson was also based on a bust by Houdon, with the die portrait engraved by Carl T. Arlt and the lettering by James T. Vail.

To my eyes now, the overall look of these stamps is bland, but as a child these disembodied heads and color varieties were mesmerizing. 1¢ and 2¢ versions also appeared on our mail, and very occasionally higher denominations. I was ‘happy as a clam’ with this busy work involving little colored heads.

The 3¢ Jefferson was the workhorse of first class mail from 1938 to 1954, when the 3¢ value from the 6th Bureau Issue was introduced. Will we ever see another stamp issued in a quantity of 138,000,000,000?

For much more info about The Prexies, I suggest a book with that title authored by Roland E. Rustad.

The Famous Inverted Jenny Frame

We all know about the Inverted Jenny…Right? But a few days ago I learned that the Jenny airplane really isn’t inverted!

What??? That’s right, it’s the red frame image on the stamp that’s upside down.

Hand-operated Spider Press
Hand-operated Spider Press

I’m not playing with you (and perhaps you already knew this), but here’s what I learned. The stamp’s two colors (red and blue) were intaglio printed one-at-a-time on a hand-operated Spider Press by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). The red stamp frame design was printed first. That created stacks of paper sheets filled with red frames, but no blue airplanes. When the ink had dried on those sheets, they were reprinted in blue, again one-sheet-at-a-time, which added the Jenny airplane (a standard Curtiss JN-4) to the stamp image. It’s generally believed that mistakenly one of the red frame sheets was put on the press inverted. Voilà! A sheet of stamps with a plane apparently flying upside down was created. In reality, however, it was the frame design standing on its head. SO…we have either the famous ‘Inverted Frame’ stamp or the ‘Inverted Jenny.’ You, of course, know which name stuck.

A detailed (and interesting) history and analysis of the design and printing of this stamp has been published online by Siegel Auction Galleries, Inc. Definitely worth checking out.

“Hats Off” to Stamps!

This website is about enjoying stamps and sharing that enjoyment. Though hats really aren’t my thing, these 2001 British stamps featuring contemporary hat design amazed me when I first saw them. And I’m still amazed. So…”Hats Off to Stamps!” I’ll be featuring other stamps that amaze, intrigue or mystify me on this website.

What stamp/s or aspect of collecting do you enjoy? Let me know. Comments to posts are welcome. Do you have any questions about stamps or stamp collecting? Ask.

Exploring Stamps —YouTube Channel

A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to the YouTube Channel “Exploring Stamps.” I didn’t know what a YouTube Channel was. My YouTube experience has been one-off computer software ‘how tos’ and recent segments about replacing my RAV 4 rearview mirror (Horrors!).

When I think of stamp collecting I see older men (like me) seeking exotic material (I wish) for their collections, or kids being distracted for a short while with pretty stamps (hopefully some will catch the collecting bug), but that distraction most often succumbs to video games, TV, and smart phones.

Laura and Graham Beck. They make Exploring Stamps happen.
Laura and Graham Beck. They make Exploring Stamps happen.

Suddenly, on my monitor, there was this Millenial or GenXer, Graham Beck, with a South African accent. (Confession: I don’t know what those Mill/Gen terms mean.) Anyway, Graham has a box of stamps, and one-at-a-time he takes you stamp exploring—a volcano in Iceland (highly recommended), Canada’s first stamp (and perhaps the world’s fist emoji!), a woman’s head (and what’s that hat she’s wearing?), even the Simpsons, and much more…

Stamp collecting and exploration through a Gen-Millenial-XYer’s eyes—a great ride! Episodes are lively, intelligent, funny, and crisply paced. SO…This is a YouTube Channel—and definitely one to watch! Hopefully the Gen-Mill-YXers will continue to amaze me with their vision of stamp collecting.

Check it out. Let me know what you think.

Australia, The Early Years (Parramatta Road, Sydney)

My August 3, 2018 post featured British Colonies Bicolors that I picked up during Volunteer Week at the American Philatelic Center. Here’s another intriguing stamp I acquired at the same time. It’s from a 1988 set called “The Early Years,” part of a series of Australia Bicentennial stamp issues. I was attracted by the apparent primitive artwork featured on the stamp and wanted to learn more, as well as get a closer look at the artwork. The pale, pastel colors, especially the salmon framing of the central image seemed perfectly suited for an appealing presentation of historical watercolor art.
This stamp is one of a strip of five different stamps shown below. Each stamp features a ‘framed’ artwork with a tastefully chosen framing color, and along the bottom of the strip of stamps is one continuous historical scene. The featured artwork on my stamp is a watercolor (Brickfield Hill, or, High Road to Parramatta) from about 1850, likely based on a 1798 etching by Thomas Watling. The watercolor features Brickfield Hill, an area that supplied the early colony’s growing need for bricks. Parramatta Road itself became a major historical east-west artery of Sydney.
This strip of stamps is a attractive door-opener to Australia’s history. Since the country as we know it today largely evolved from a penal colony, the history is unusual and fascinating. It’s a subject I’ve begun to pursue, as you can see by this post, and I plan to continue down that road.
I’d welcome any feedback or insights you’d like to offer.

Above, After Thomas Watling. “Brickfield Hill, or, High Road to Parramatta,” ca. 1850. National Library of Australia, PIC Drawer 2151 #T3134 NK9921.

attributed to Thomas Watling. “Brickfield Hill, or, High Road to Parramatta,” plate form David Collins’ An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, 1798.


Beautiful British Bicolors!

One of the many fun aspects of participating in Volunteer Week at the American Philatelic Center is the chance to take a break from your assigned task and spend a little time rooting through a pile of thousands and thousands of stamps, free to volunteers for the taking. Many of the volunteers are advanced collectors, and this activity probably doesn’t fit their interest, but it makes me feel like a kid again and I enjoy seeing many familiar stamps from my years of collecting and taking away a few to fill spots in my worldwide collection.
The two British colony bicolors shown here were among the ‘treasures’ I brought home. To me the British Colony bicolors, which began appearing in the mid-30s, are among the most beautiful classic stamp designs–rich colors, exquisite engraving, and exotic lands and cultures. Also shown here is a third stamp from the Volunteer Week ‘thousands’ that shows a later take on the colonies pictorials, when full color imagery was introduced. It’s true there are many beautiful stamps in this format, but for me the bicolors remain tops.
The stamps illustrated are the Gilbert & Ellice Islands 1 1/2d ‘Canoe Crossing Reef’ (1939),  Bahamas 3d ‘Fishing Fleet’ (1954), and Bahamas 15c ‘Sea Garden’ (1967).
   What are some of your favorite stamp designs?

Is this a Postage Stamp?


Why?:  This site, though primarily featuring postage stamps, will also include other kinds of stamps, like the poster stamp* above. Poster stamp graphics are often hard for me to resist, and this one seems to illustrate well the labor (of love?) involved in developing this website.
The stamp (German, early 20th century) presents an odd image (or perhaps not), for the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Junglehrer (ADJ), the German young teachers group associated with the Verband Bildung und Erziehung (VBE – Association for Education). Naked young men are pictured trying to move an enormous boulder. Perhaps the message speaks to the difficulty young teachers have as they begin their profession. (I was once a challenged young teacher.) And is that a tree of golden apples? Well, teachers and apples go together.
If I learn more about the circumstances surrounding this stamp, I’ll pass that information along. Note the insignia in the bottom left corner of the illustration. I assume that’s the mark of the artist. Can you add more information about this stamp?

Your comments are encouraged.

* Poster stamps were quite popular (and collectable) in the early 20th century. They were used to promote products, events and causes. Often they were miniature reproductions of actual posters. For more info check out the Poster Stamp Collectors Club.