Royal Mail

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This was our first stamp commission for the Royal Mail: to mark the 150th anniversary of the Crimean War. The bitter conflict on the north coast of the Black Sea was a power struggle between an ambitious Russia and the Allied forces of France, Britain, Ottoman, and Sardinia.

We started our research at the British Library and the National Army Museum archives, searching for first-hand accounts and original documents. From a point of knowing very little about this mid-nineteenth-century war, we rapidly became very well read. In fact, we became so enthused with the subject that we were teased as 'Crimean bores' at dinner parties. (Well haven't you noticed what is going on in Ukraine lately?)

Undeterred, we produced initial stamp designs that acknowledged some of the many significant legacies of the war: Florence Nightingale and her studies in nursing hygiene; the first war journalist filing instant reports by telegraph; the first war photography; the institution of the Victoria Cross for Valour; the first army field kitchen; the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade; and the origin of the phrase 'the thin red line'. While these ideas were clearly important, the subject matter did not work well as a coherent set of stamps.

We returned to the National Army Museum archives where we unearthed an old photographic album entitled Crimean Heroes and Trophies. This 'souvenir' album was speculatively published in 1856 by the innovative photographers Joseph Cundall and Robert Howlett. It included photographs originally commissioned by Queen Victoria, who wanted her returning Crimean soldiers recorded for posterity. Cundall and Howlett's mix of studio and location photographs at the naval dockyards and the veterans' hospital revealed the never-before seen underside of war. Many portraits were of those who had been severely wounded.

On first sight we were struck by the intensity of these images. Very early wet glass plate cameras of this period would need the sitter to be completely still to avoid any blurring of the photograph. We could sense from the sharp quality of the photographs that these soldiers were used to standing stock still when told to do so.

Our interest in these images was heightened when we began to look into the military records of each soldier. Each had fought in one or more of the major Crimean War battles. None were officers. A set of stamps featuring these front line soldiers seemed fitting and true to the sentiment of Queen Victoria who valued her soldiers' bravery regardless of rank.

Stamp format/size: portrait 30mm x 41mm. Print process: Lithography. Phosphor: one centre (2nd) or two (others). Gum: PVA. Number of stamps: six.

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An original soldier's letter home was used for the first day cover (top) and an original dispatch pouch (possibly used by Lord Raglan at the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade), featured on the Crimean War presentation pack (above).

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Drawing upon the extensive original material that we had found during our research period, we designed two handstamps featuring the Crimean War campaign medal (left) and the siege guns from Sevastopol (right).

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