Why and how should we look at stamps?

by Anoma Jayasinghe

Review of “Philately study during the British colonial period in Ceylon”.

When asked about postage stamps, we will mostly recall two images: firstly, the traditional paper mail system with its envelopes, letters, and postmen on bicycles ringing their bells, or the collector or philatelist looking attentively at a small stamp through large magnifying glasses. Both ideas are quite accurate, and they both also carry a «smell of the past».

However, most of us do not depend on the postman to deliver our letters. The arrival of instant e-mail and social media has made them the standard means of our private and public communication. If you find a letter in your (physical) mailbox today, most likely it will be a bill, a bank notification, or some commercial propaganda in a pre-paid envelope with no stamps attached or bearing the mark of an automatic postage machine. Stamps now have an aura of both antiquity and curiosity, but not one of being a product of everyday, generalised use.

However, we should not forget that right before our generation, stamps were an extremely common, even pervasive object of modernity. Many postal authorities have issued stamps both in large quantities and for extended periods of time; they have been sold and used almost everywhere, and together with the envelopes they were glued to, they reached almost every corner of the world. Stamps constitute a standard part of the everyday lives of all of us or our families.

Seminal work

In this seminal book, keeping with the title, the author is able to develop new categorisation groups for Queen Victoria stamps based on colour and font variations, and the construction of the new grouping system revealed the dissimilarity between the artworks. In addition to evaluating the author’s collection of Ceylon’s stamps, several colour variations of Dull Rose postal stamps were identified. “Philately study during the British colonial period in Ceylon” by Dulshan Ellawela is a must-read for all citizens, whether he or she is a stamp collector or not.

For most of us, stamps are only small, colourful pieces of paper affixed to envelopes and packages to get the mail to its destination. We still use stamps frequently, but rarely stop to think of their rich imagery and multiple messages. And even if we do, we tend to look at them from our perspectives: as consumers mailing postcards to friends, as stamp collectors, or perhaps as a state representative behind a particular stamp issue. This timely book consists of five illustrative and colourful chapters that teach you how to evaluate Ceylon colonial stamps and the printing methodology of stamps, counterfeiting, and error stamps utilised during the Queen Victoria Era.

This book begins by quoting Josh Billings, “Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there”.

In Chapter 3.1, the author especially investigates the printing techniques used to produce Ceylon postage stamps during the reign of Queen Victoria. Using plate A, he was attempting to spark a discussion regarding the printing process of the Ceylon SG11 stamp. Based on the authenticity of Plate A, the author has made some significant findings. The author describes in detail how SG127/CSE79 and SG121/CSE73 Ceylon stamps were printed using Plates B and C using the typographic printing method. This helps the reader visualise the incorporation of the printing technique.

The author says, “All of his aforementioned judgements and conclusions were made on the assumption that printing plates A, B, and C are authentic” and“It is quite doubtful that the perforations on the printing plates are engraved. Such assumptions are based on Plates B and C” recovered from the Thomas Cliffe stamp factory in Rhyl, North Wales, so it is evident that he has conducted his research based on assumptions.

Printing Plates A, B and C

This valuable book provides an insightful discussion of printing techniques.  It is abundantly clear that the purpose of this book based on research is not to establish the authenticity of the plates. However, some readers who are not properly reading this book may discuss the authenticity of these plates.

These readers should be aware that this book is the result of an MPhil thesis and that the author was attempting to analyse the printing techniques employed during the reign of Queen Victoria, not the authenticity of plates. In addition, it is abundantly clear that even though Plates B and C are reproductions, this does not affect the evaluation of the typographic printing method.

This book is also an excellent illustration of how the visual content analysis methodology can be applied to the event analysis of stamps.

This study examines the philosophical and aesthetic elements used in the design of postage stamps, as well as their incorporation into forgeries. In addition, a deeper mathematical analysis reveals that Ceylon’s postage stamps are counterfeit. Subsequently, the counterfeit stamps will be recognised by eliminating them from collections of authentic stamps.

In Chapter 3.2, the “counterfeit” stamps published by the Department of Posts (2015) in their publication ‘Postage Stamps of Sri Lanka, volume 1’ are discussed extensively.

This will enable the reader to gain a greater understanding of counterfeit stamps circulating among stamp collectors and to identify them visually. As a result of a thorough investigation, the author was able to identify the counterfeiting techniques used to forge Ceylon’s most expensive stamp, known as dull rose.

It disclosed unclassified varieties, error stamps, and the redemption of the third and second exchanges. The Ceylon government is responsible for the flaws in the artwork on the Ceylon Telegraph stamps.

The author also identified unclassified types of surcharged stamps and discovered the additional features of Die 1 and Die 2 of the five cent telegraph stamps. According to this study, the 1849 browns patent envelope discovered in the author’s personal collection was the earliest Ceylon patent envelope.

The writer is a researcher and a former staff member of the University of Moratuwa

Source: Review on the Sunday Observer, 11th June 2023


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