If, like the apprentice who finally qualifies in his trade, you wish to develop your stamp collection on more specific lines than simply accumulating stamps, there are various ways in which you can pursue a serious philatelic study. The specialist is a mature student of stamps, their design and printing, their history and postal significance, devoting his attention to one particular country, or even to one period of a country’s issues, its postal history and postmarks. It follows that a good knowledge of the four principal methods of printing stamps – recess or line-engraving, typography or ‘letterpress’, lithography and photogravure (a form of recess printing) – is one of the necessary qualifications to becoming a philatelist.
The source of a stamp design is a line-drawing, watercolour sketch, photograph or computer-generated artwork depending on the printing process contemplated. In recess printing (the process employed in printing the world’s first postage stamps, the Great Britain Penny Black and Twopence Blue of 1840), a line-drawing of the design subject is engraved, stamp-size, on to a steel or copper die – the ‘master die’ – which is reproduced on a printing plate or cylinder as many times as required to make up a sheet of stamps. The design is formed from recesses and cuts; these contain the ink that produces the printed stamp.
For typographic (more correctly letterpress) printing, the design is engraved in relief (as opposed to recess) and the printing plate is composed of moulds (‘stereotypes’) reproduced from the original die. Photogravure printing is another form of the recess process, but instead of being copied by the engraver, the original artwork is photographed and transferred in various stages to be etched on the copper printing-cylinder; also known as gravure, especially when utilising computer-controlled electro-mechanical engraving. The stamp image is composed of tiny recesses or ‘cells’ which vary in depth according to the intensity of colour required on the printed stamps, and which appear as tiny dots. Multicolouredstamps are printed from several cylinders, one for each colour. The photo- or offsetlithographic process is the modem version of lithography, a form of surface printing invented in 1796. The design is photographed on to a zinc plate and outlined in a greasy ink – sprays of water ensure that only the design image is inked, whence a rubber roller or ‘blanket’ transfers or ‘offsets’ the stamp designs on to the paper.
Errors in design and varieties or flaws caused by mishaps in the course of printing are keenly sought by many collectors. The stamp designer may make a simple mistake of identity, motif, caption or time-scale, such as the instances of Columbus using a telescope (not then invented) on a St Kitts-Nevis stamp, Fiji’s unmanned canoe in full sail across a lagoon, and Schubert’s music on an East German stamp honouring Schumann. Spelling errors are common and one recalls ‘Wakatipu’ appearing (incorrectly) as ‘Wakitipu’ on a New Zealand stamp, and ‘Jesselton’ shown in error as ‘Jessleton’ on a North Borneo (Sabah) issue. Errors of colour, colours and parts of a design omitted and ‘upside-down’ stamps are among the most spectacular printing varieties. Europe’s rarest stamp, the Sweden 3-skilling-banco, in yellow, is an error of colour – it should have been green – and only one is known.
The head of Queen Victoria is known inverted on an Indian 4-annas stamp of 1854, her statue inverted on a Jamaica 1s. stamp of 1920, and the head of Queen Elizabeth II omitted on stamps issued in Great Britain for National Productivity Year in 1962 (3d. and 1s.3d.). There are also errors of perforation and watermark. The most common flaws and varieties these days are usually allied to the photogravure printing process – usually blemishes which appear as white patches or spots, extraneous marks or misplaced colours on the stamps. Varieties that occur on the same stamp on every sheet are regarded as ‘constant’, which gives them a certain status.
Postal history is concerned with the origins and development of the postal services from earliest times. It involves the study of postal rates, routes and postmarks of a specific area of especial interest to the collector. The postmark, as a record of transport routes and dates, is the key to most aspects of postal history, and some collectors make a study of the different postmark types and their uses, supported by covers and other mail items. British stamps used abroad have a special attraction. Railway enthusiasts look for Travelling Post Office and station cancellations, while those who prefer ships seek mail-boat and ‘paquebot’ postmarks.