A couple of weeks ago I went to a Friends of Te Papa Christmas event, which included an informative and entertaining talk by Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, about the art used on some of New Zealand’s Christmas stamps. Click this link to read Mark’s own post about it.
I used to collect stamps as a child – my father worked for the Post Office so many of my siblings had collected stamps, but for most or all of us it was only a childhood activity. I tried to find my stamp album prior to the talk but couldn’t. I did, however, find some loose stamps and most of the stamp photos in this post are of these.
Before we heard from Mark, Pat Brownsley talked for a few minutes– as well as being a scientist he also curates Te Papa’s stamp collection. I think most of the audience were surprised to find that Te Papa has an extensive New Zealand stamp collection, but much of it was donated from the archives of the New Zealand Post Office in 1992 – when they were being commercialised and the board decided the collection should stay in public hands (very enlightened of them, I wonder if the Minister of Finance knew at the time!)
It is interesting thinking of the value of things – stamps, which, once used should have no value, and even unused (which most of Te Papa’s collection is) only has inflated value because there are collectors willing to pay such prices. I know you can say the same about art … and many other things, but their stamp collection is one of their most valuable collections! Perhaps the fact they are small and portable has attracted many collectors over the years. There are estimated to be more than 30 million stamp collectors worldwide.
New Zealand’s first specific Christmas stamp issue was in 1960.
Staff from the (NZ) National Art Gallery were involved in its selection, which was perhaps unfortunate, as it doesn’t work well as a stamp! The original has had to be lightened considerably to get any definition in the stamp reproduction. But it is not surprising that they chose to reproduce a work in the National Gallery (London) collection – looking to England (or ‘home’ as many New Zealanders still called it), especially in cultural matters, was common at the time. It was in 1961 that Britain announced that it was seeking to join the European Economic Community (EEC), which was greeted with dismay in New Zealand, and slowly began a loosening of ties. Read the story on Te Ara if you want more information.
In 1960 the painting was attributed to Rembrandt, but now it is attributed to a Pupil of Rembrandt. Rather than being called ‘Nativity’ as the stamp has it, the Gallery now calls it an ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, 1646 – it took me awhile to find it on their website.
The next year, Albrecht Durer’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) was chosen.
Image of painting from Web Gallery of Art
The design is still rather complex to depict on a stamp, which was perhaps why the following year they chose a simple single-figure composition which reproduces well on the small scale of a stamp.
This was Sassoferato’s ‘Madonna in prayer’ (or ‘Virgin in prayer’), 1640-50, in the National Gallery, London.
In 1963, the choice was again in the National Gallery, London – it was Titian’s ‘Holy Family’, 1510, an early work of his still showing the influence of his master Giovanni Bellini and his contemporary Giorgione.
Mark probably told us when a NZ Christmas stamp first reproduced an art work from a New Zealand collection, but I can’t remember. However, the 1975 stamp reproduced a work by Zanobi Machiavelli in the Dunedin Art Gallery and the 1977 stamp reproduced a drawing then (but not now) attributed to Correggio from Te Papa’s collection.
A couple from the 1980s returned to overseas sources – the 1980 reproduced a terracotta “Madonna and Child with Cherubim” by Andrea della Robbia. In trying to find the source for this I came across another Christmas stamp of the same image, from America, which gives the source as the ‘National Gallery’ (meaning Washington, not London, of course!) Here’s the link to the original art work: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.129.html .
The 1982 stamp reproduced Piero di Cosimo’s, “Madonna with Child and Angels”, in the Cini Foundation, Venice, 1505-1507, but put it in a frame of pohutukawa flowers (known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree, as its red flowers appear around December). You can also see how high inflation was in the late 1970s and early 1980s – the stamp price rapidly increased from 3 cents in 1975 to 18 cents in 1982.
Mark ended his talk with a lament that Te Papa did not own many religious paintings that could have appeared on NZ Christmas stamps – while most of the art that appeared on the stamps was from overseas museums, the few times when they did reproduce art from NZ collections mostly it was from Dunedin and Auckland art galleries.
However, I would like to end not with a Christmas stamp but with another of my loose stamps – a reproduction of a work by New Zealand artist Rita Angus (1908-1970), “Boats, Island Bay” – private collection, but the Te Papa link has more information, including:
One of Rita Angus’s best-loved paintings, Boats, Island Bay, celebrates the landscape and community of Wellington’s south coast. Fishing boats twist and bob on the tide, with the island of Tapu te Ranga on the horizon. Angus’s friend Betty Curnow recalled visiting Island Bay with her: ‘Our days at Island Bay were enjoyable, with lots of things to laugh about. Rita watched absorbed, and remembered so much that was happening about her … All of her paintings were planned and worked out from absorbed and remembered things as well as from sketches – all with reason and purpose.’
If you are a regular reader of this website you will know why I chose this image to finish with! And if you want to see more NZ stamps, the NZ Post website has a complete historical archive.
 According to a 2013 article in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/investing/10356582/Mistakes-on-stamps-that-make-them-worth-a-fortune.html