To quote Bing Crosby, ‘every Christmas card I write’, would be enveloped and stamped unless the friend or relation receiving it was literally close. For me and surely millions of others, the stamp itself needed to be a Christmas one. Notice how I use the past tense. In the days of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, postal Christmases are ghosts of the past. Even my own favoured round-robin e-letter and card (very advanced in 2000), now look quaintly retro. Regardless, New Zealand Post merrily continues to issue five Christmas stamps each year, with ‘gorgeous watercolours’ depicting the Nativity Play in 2014 and, this time around, colourful stained-glass windows.
However attractive, they possess very little of the resonance or mana of the earliest New Zealand Christmas stamps. Between 1960 and 1984 the overwhelming majority of them featured reproductions of Old Master paintings and it is here that the art historian and the stamp lover in me intersect. I believe New Zealand was unique in the consistency of this practice. My only regret is that such an art historical ‘consciousness raising’ did not extend to the acquisition of many more such paintings for our public art collections! Here I will tell the story of our nation’s first ever Christmas stamp, and provide a brief glimpse of subsequent, actually rather better, designs.
Christmas stamps: a very short history
Christmas stamps have a long history – arguably the first ever was issued by Canada in 1898, carrying the inscription ‘Xmas 1898’.
But it was nearly 40 years before a dedicated Christmas stamp was issued anywhere else in the world: here Austria took the lead in 1937. The first stamps to depict the Nativity were Hungary’s of 1943. A shorter hiatus followed, broken by Cuba with poinsettias and bells in 1951, followed rapidly by Haiti, Luxembourg, Spain, Australia, South Korea and Liechtenstein, all between 1954 and 1957. Australia’s very successful debut reproduced not a devout little girl as many people fondly thought, but a figure inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds’s rather charming painting, The Infant Samuel at Prayer (1776). This must have influenced Australia’s neighbours across the Tasman to talk almost as seriously of launching our own Christmas stamps as we do of our new flag today.
A stamp of spiritual significance
The Labour government of 1957-60 had strong Christian values. Prime Minister Walter Nash proudly called himself a ‘Christian Socialist’ and Finance Minister Arnold Nordmeyer was an ordained Presbyterian Minister. To appreciate the circumstances behind the new stamp they supported, I will quote from R.J.G. Collins and C.W. Watts’s classic account, The Postage Stamps of New Zealand: Volume 4: ‘There are many people who believe that the commercial exploitation of Christmas has a tendency to submerge its spiritual significance. Efforts are being made by Christian Churches in New Zealand and by organizations associated with them, to combat the idea that Christmas is primarily a time for the exchange of presents and for over-indulgence in food and liquid refreshments.’ I’ll drink to that!
A special Christmas stamp would thus serve as a reminder of the festival’s spiritual significance. One of the first to propose it was the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, the Rt. Rev. Alwyn Warren, in early 1959. This was too short notice, but one would be considered for 1960. The Postmaster-General (Michael Moohan) was concerned, however, about possible objections to postmarks obliterating a picture of spiritual significance. The National Council of Churches said that their members could cope with that, but if a suitable slogan could be devised, so much the better (it never was.) The Council proposed a design that embodied ‘essentially Christian elements, such as the Manger Scene, the Shepherds, the Wise Men, the Bethlehem Star’. Interestingly, a more Catholic Madonna and Child was not initially proposed. When the issue was approved in August 1959, the Christchurch Philatelic Society perhaps surprisingly objected. Over the previous 30 years, it had been customary to encourage the public to buy Health stamps, whose premium supported the children’s health camp movement. They had always been issued in October to capitalise on the cheap international post for Christmas, but now people’s loyalties were potentially split.
All I want for Christmas is a Rembrandt
A specific suggestion for a design was made by Miss Joan Fanning, Education Officer at Te Papa’s forerunner, the National Art Gallery, supported by the Director, Stewart Maclennan. She recommended the reproduction of Rembrandt’s famous Nativity (properly, The Adoration of the Shepherds) in the National Gallery, London.
The design then proceeded to Harrison & Sons, and De la Rue, London, who competed to print it using the photogravure process. Both firms understandably stated that there would be difficulties in reproducing the painting’s tonal qualities. De la Rue’s design was evidently more ‘animated’ but Harrison’s was nearer to the original and was therefore preferred. The stamp was issued on 1 November 1960, despite objections in parliament that it would undermine the good work of the Health stamps. As a good Kiwi compromise, the latter remained on sale alongside the Christmas stamps. In the event the Christmas stamps proved popular, with close to 20.5 million printed, nearly nine per head of population.
‘The nadir of philatelic art’?
There were wide differences of opinion about the merits of the stamp. The Catholic Youth Movement expressed appreciation and thanks to the Post Office for a wonderful effort in conveying to the wider public what Christmas really meant. However, a prominent artist – unnamed by Collins and Watts – complained that ‘with this stamp we have reached the nadir of philatelic art’. From knowing him, my prime suspect would be the late Bill Sutton! Collins and Watts conclude: ‘whatever the opinion may be regarding the use of reproductions of old masterpieces, the majority of people seem to agree with Mr Maclennan that technically the printers have been most successful in their reproduction of a difficult original.’
This is a fair point, especially when we recognise the limitations of printing technology of the time. Furthermore, as implied, there was little evidence of any aesthetic distaste for the stamp on the part of the great New Zealand public. That said, in retrospect, the choice of image looks unfortunate in several ways. Nobody knew it in 1960, but following its recent cleaning, the London ‘Rembrandt’ is now conclusively established as a studio copy of the original in Munich. Go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaJPHihLnL4
Whether or not it is a Rembrandt, the expressive use of paint to convey spiritual and physical radiance in gloom made it unsuitable for reduction and reproduction. A near monochrome stamp, on special, cream-coloured paper, cannot hope to convey these effects. Nor does the crowded composition help. As the Washington Sunday Star declared: ‘A great work of religious art, reduced to stamp size, is not necessarily a great stamp. The odds are rather heavy that it will be a mediocre one. The subtle qualities that make these paintings great are nearly always lost in the process of miniaturisation.’ As subsequent issues demonstrate, uncluttered, simple, linear compositions make the most successful designs. Interestingly, no first day cover was issued in 1960, possibly because of excessive caution by the Post Office in handling a New Zealand philatelic first as well as testing Christian sensibilities.
Two bonus Christmas stamps
There is little space left on my envelope to tell you much more about New Zealand Christmas stamps, but it seems only right to include the next two issues. Albrecht Dürer’s Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi Gallery, Florence), with its jewel-like colours and the use of a more chalky printing paper, represented something of an aesthetic improvement in 1961, even though the intricacy of the composition, so characteristic of the artist, did not assist the design.
But in 1962, we certainly do see a ‘happy’ Christmas stamp. The National Gallery, London, was once more the source. The seventeenth-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, relatively little known and named after his birthplace, is nothing like as important in art history as Rembrandt or Dürer. Indeed, Sassoferrato is a ‘one-hit wonder’; his signature painting, really his production line, is the beautiful Madonna in Prayer. But what a hit, and what an effective stamp!
It proved so popular that while its scheduled withdrawal date was 12 January 1963, supplies of the 19,998,180 stamps printed were all but exhausted at post offices a month earlier. The design won the Philatelic Societies of San Francisco award for the most beautiful stamp of the year. Bravo Sassoferrato!
Kua puāwai a Pōhutukawa, kua mōmona a Kina, ko Hineraumati me āna tini tohu. Ngā mihi mahana o te wā ki a koutou katoa. The pōhutukawa are in bloom, the kinas are fat, these are the gifts of Summer. Sending you warm greetings of the festive season!
For more art, visit: http://arts.tepapa.govt.nz/