Sunday, 27 August 2017

Belgium 1928 - Orval Abbey

Once upon a time there was a sad, grieving widow. Her name was Mathilda of Tuscany. One day while sitting by the cool waters of a nearby spring, Mathilda bent forward to regard the aquatic life swimming without care in the clear water. When she leaned back she noticed to her extreme horror that her wedding ring was no longer on her finger. Her mind reeled. Her heart began to thump wildly. Her ring! her precious wedding ring. Her only remaining link to her deceased beloved. Gone! No. It could not be possible. She looked back at her hand. Yes, the ring was definitely missing. Oh no! She began to weep...

Suddenly the water before her stirred, and there appeared a trout. She gasped. For in the mouth of the trout was her wedding ring! She gratefully accepted the ring from the trout. Then exclaimed, "Truly this place is a Val d'Or (Golden Valley)." In fact, so happy was she that she funded the construction of a monastery on the site, a monastery that became known as Orval Abbey. The word Orval perhaps deriving from Val d'Or. What a wonderful tale of how Orval Abbey came to be! 


However true the above tale may be, what we do know is that in 1070 a group of Benedictine monks were invited to the site by Arnould, Count of Chiny. The monks began work on a monastery, but upon the death of the Count some forty years later, the monks left, abandoning their work. But a community of Canons Regular moved in and completed the work. The abbey church was consecrated on 30 September 1124.

Then in 1132 a group of Cistercian monks turned up. The two groups merged into one community within the Cistercian Order. The first abbot of this unified group was Constantin. Then sometime in the mid 13th century the monastery was destroyed by fire. The repairs took over 100 years to complete.

For the next few hundred years the monks lived peacefully in the monastery. Then in the 15th century turmoil began. The monastery was used as a foundry during France's wars with Spain, making it a target. Then came the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). In 1637, French mercenaries raided the monastery, and for the second time in its colourful past, it was destroyed by fire. It seemed the monastery had seen more than its share of the ravages of fire. But fate strongly disagreed. In 1793, amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, the monastery was used to house Austrian troops. The French forces got wind of this, and attacked the monastery, burning it down completely! Now homeless, the monks left.

The monastery sat in ruins for nearly one hundred years before the land was purchased by the Harenne family in 1887. The land was donated back to the Cistercian Order, a new monastery was constructed, and in 1948 its church was consecrated. The ruins of the old abbey can still be visited today. And if you visit you may like to partake of some beer homemade by the monks, using the water from the famous springs.


On 15 September 1928, Belgium issued a set of nine stamps commemorating Orval Abbey. Two of the stamp were printed in Photogravure and are therefore outside the scope of this blog. The other seven stamps, in which there are three designs, were designed and engraved by Gaston Gandon. These stamps are truly magnificent. In fact, one of the designs happens to be an all-time favourite of mine.


The first design features a Cistercian monk carving the capital of a column. This design was printed in two values.


The second design features Mathilda of Tuscany taking her wedding ring from the mouth of the trout. Gandon has managed, rather masterfully, to incorporate the abbey arms, which show the trout and ring. This design was printed in three values. To date I only have one of these values: 1,75f + 35c dark blue.


The third and final design features a view of the ruins of Orval Abbey. This design was printed in two values.

Until next time...

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Mauritania 1938 - Camels

The Sahara Desert constitutes almost 90% of its landmass. Camels are a typical mode of transport. And camel milk is offered to household guests. So where does one go for a camel ride in the desert or partake of some tasty of camel milk? The answer is Mauritania, more formerly known as Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Mauritania is located in West Africa. It is bordered by five other African countries as well as the Atlantic Ocean.

As I mentioned above, camels play an important role in Mauritanian daily life. The species of camel found in Mauritania, and indeed other areas of Africa, is the one-humped dromedary (C. dromedarius). Of the three known species of camel in the world, the dromedary is the most common. In Mauritania, camels are used for transport and they provide all important calcium in the diets of the locals in the form of milk and cheese. And even camel milk chocolate is now being produced!


Between 1938-1940, the Institut de Gravure issued a set of 34 definitive stamps for use in Mauritania. The set consisted four design types, one of which was engraved by Albert Decaris. This particular design features Mauritanian locals and their camels, and it was issued in seven different values. If you're a regular to my blogs, you will know that I like to collect and feature all values issued. I very much enjoy studying the effects different colours have on a design. Anywho, enough talk! Let's get to the images of this great design.


It is worth noting that the 40c & 45c values were issued in 1940. Which value colour is your favourite? For me it is the 50c purple stamp.

Until next time...

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Monaco 1978 - 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Jules Verne (Part 2)

"A man of merit owes himself to the homage of the rest of mankind who recognize his worth."
—Jules Verne

Strange lights spotted in the night sky the world over. Haunting trumpet sounds that accompany these sightings. Add to this the mysterious appearance of black flags worked with golden suns atop many of the world's most famous monuments, including The Great Pyramid, The Effiel Tower, and The Statue of Liberty. What could all this weirdness be? Aliens with a twisted sense of humour? Not this time. This quirky behaviour is the work of none other than Robur, a brilliant inventor and the main character in Jules Verne's 1886 novel, Robur the Conqueror

This blog is the second part in a series focusing on the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Jules Verne stamp set, issued by Monaco on 2 May 1978. To check out Part 1, click HERE. This beautiful set of eight stamps was designed and engraved by Pierre Forget. One of the stamps in this set features a key scene from the novel Robur the Conqueror.


The story-line of this novel is rather intriguing considering its year of publication. The central theme of the novel is the argument over the feasibility of heavier-than-air versus lighter-than-air flying craft. But before we go any further with the description of the novel, let's have a look at a bit of history. Since the invention of the hot air balloon in 1783 by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier in France, inventors had been wracking their brains trying to find a way to successfully propel and steer these craft contrary to wind conditions. In other words, wrest the steering wheel from Mother Nature. For nearly 100 years this seemed an impossible task (Mother Nature had a tight grip on the wheel!). Then in 1886 Gottlieb Daimler created a light-weight gasoline engine suitable for lighter than-air-craft. This engine led Count Zeppelin of Germany to develop a solid-frame craft covered in fabric, powered by two 16 hp Daimler engines. This craft was 416 feet long. This craft, known as the LZ 1, flew successfully for a full 18 minutes in July 1900. It was the first ever airship or "blimp" as we now call such a craft. 

So it was in this early environment of inventors pulling their hair out, searching for controllable lighter-than-air flying craft that Jules Verne's novel is set. In the story, the main character, Robur, is trying to convince the movers and shakers of the Weldon Institute, a flight enthusiasts group in Philadelphia, that lighter-than-air flight is a thing of the past. Robur argues with them that heavier-than-air flying craft is the way of the future - and he has proof! Robur boasts that the strange lights are his new aircraft and that it was he who placed the black flags the the famous monuments. The Weldon guys basically consider him a crackpot and laugh at him.

The arrogant Robur then decides, perhaps rashly, to kidnap the Weldon Institute's secretary, president, and the president's valet, and takes them aboard his new flying machine. Robur calls this machine the Albatross. He explains that it is a multi-rotor gyrodyne with many horizontally-set airscrews to provide lift and two vertically-set airscrews to drive the vessel forward and to provide control. Oh, and the whole apparatus is battery powered! Like a lot of early sci-fi writers, Jules Verne had a rather scarily accurate insight into future technology.

To cut a long story short, the Weldon guys didn't particularly like being kidnapped. Surprise, surprise! And they are ridiculously jealous of this new technology. It far surpasses anything they have designed. In order to exact some Victorian gentlemanly revenge and remove the competition, they decide to blow the ship up and make their escape. Believing this flying craft destroyed, the Weldon Institute wait a few months, then unveil their own new lighter-than-air craft, which is basically a hot air balloon with a small motor (a forerunner to the Zeppelin). They call it Go-Ahead. They launch it and start wowing the crowds with its capabilities.

Unbeknownst to the Weldon guys, Robur has secretly built a second Albatross using parts recovered from the wreck. He appears out of nowhere with his new ship and starts showing the crowds just how much better his craft is by literally running rings around the Go-Ahead. During the competition the two flying craft go higher and higher. Then disaster struck for the Go-Ahead. Its gas bags, unable to handle the altitude, rumble, quiver, and... EXPLODE!  Robur rescues the crew of Go-Ahead.

In one final display of arrogance, Robur then tells the crowds that the world is not ready for his technology yet. And he promptly flies his vessel off into the sunset.


Now let's look at Pierre Forget's artist impression of the battle in the sky between the two vastly different flying craft. It is stunning work, in my humble opinion. I love Forget's depiction of the moving airscrews. And the great use of red to represent the sense of height and the imminent mortal danger faced by those in the hot air balloon.

Until next time...

Thursday, 10 August 2017

France 1956 - Battle of Verdun

Human history has been witness to some of the most brutal acts of violence. Violence on a scale incomprehensible to imagine. Perhaps one of the most blood-soaked periods of our history was World War I, a war that claimed over 41 million souls. Staggering! And the worst of the battles in this time of mass slaughter was the Battle of Verdun.

World War I was the embodiment of a new age of warfare. New weapons of war such as the howitzer, the mightiest of these being Big Bertha, which could reign destruction on a enemy target up to 9 km away. It was also the dawn of the flying aces of aerial warfare. Who hasn't heard of the legendary Red Baron? Destruction also now came from underwater in the form of submarines, such as the classic German U-boats. And although chemical warfare had been around for a very long time, World War I saw the first mass use of such diabolical weaponry. Chemical agents such as tear gas, and more lethal agents like phosgene, chlorine, and mustard gas were being employed in an attempt to smoke enemies from entrenched areas.

Which leads us to the birth of an horrendous age, the age of Trench Warfare. The most famous arena for Trench Warfare in World War I was the Western Front, a vast area of land riddled with complex networks of trenches, an area where millions of French and Germany soldiers died for little or no gain in territory. Soldiers lived in appalling conditions, before, like lambs to the slaughter, they went 'over the top' of the trench to be mowed down by enemy artillery. It was a ludicrous method of warfare where soldiers died seemingly at the whim of their commanding officers, who, for want of anything better to do, ordered charge after charge. The British public referred to their soldiers as "lions led by donkeys". Indeed, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men - a death toll difficult to comprehend.

The longest battle in the trenches was the Battle of Verdun from 21 February to 18 December 1916. I shall not belittle the sheer horror and complexity of this battle by trying to summarise it here. Instead, I will throw a few statistics your way. The Battle of Verdun was fought between French and German soldiers. It raged for 303 brutal days, and is considered one of the most costly battles in human history. It is currently believed that the total number of casualties in the battle amounted to 714,231. 377,231 of these were French and 337,000 German. Averaging out these staggering numbers we get roughly 70,000 casualties a month or over 2,300 a day! I can't even begin to imagine! For an in-depth analysis of the battle click HERE


On 5 March 1956 France issued a stamp commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Battle of Verdun. Albert Decaris was given the honour of designing and engraving this important stamp. I think he did a beautiful job with this difficult task.


Over time, quite naturally, French Post have issued stamps commemorating this battle, all of which have been beautifully rendered. In fact, I believe there to be an interesting blog on that subject on the horizon. But for now, take a look at this page to peruse more Battle of Verdun stamps, click HERE

Until next time...

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Monaco 1978 - 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Jules Verne (Part 1)

 "It is certain that the inanimate objects by which you are surrounded have a direct action on the brain."
—Jules Verne
The inanimate objects currently surrounding me just happen to be stamps, stamps celebrating the sesquicentennial of the French sci-fi novelist, Jules Verne (for more on M. Verne click HERE). And I have to say these wonderful engraved stamps are definitely having a direct action on my brain - a very positive one. This set was issued on 2 May 1978 in Monaco, 150 years after the birth of Jules Verne on 8 February 1828 in Nantes, France. This set is quite a large one, consisting 8 stamps, all of which were designed and engraved by Pierre Forget. For the sake of brevity, I will study the first three stamps in the set in this blog. These three stamps focus on the novel, L'Île mystérieuse (The Mysterious Island). 


The Mysterious Island is a novel set during the Siege of Richmond at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Five Union soldiers, who are being held as prisoners of war, decide to escape their confinement by hijacking a balloon. Stealthy! Unfortunately for the escapees, the weather is in rather a bad mood. After travelling for some distance over the Pacific Ocean, a storm grabs the balloon and tosses it to ground on a strange uncharted island in the South Pacific. This balloon crash is the subject of the first stamp.

Lucky to be alive, the survivors call their savior 'Lincoln Island' in honour of President Lincoln. Thankfully for the castaways, one of their number happens to be a brilliant engineer (shades of the Professor in Gilligan's Island here!). The engineer, called Smith, managed to produce fire, pottery, bricks, nitroglycerin, iron, a simple electric telegraph. And if that wasn't enough, he designed for them a home on one of the island's cliffs. They called it 'Granite House'. Taking this ridiculous fantasy world even further, they built a seaworthy ship!

As the castaways settle into life on the island - which is starting to sound pretty luxurious to me - a series of strange mysteries begin to unfold. It seems the men have an anonymous benefactor who helps them along with gifts such as weapons and ammunition. And their dog 'Top' is rscued in the water from a dugong by an unseen hand. Just who or what is this deus ex machina (god from the machine)?

Then one day they find a message in a bottle directing them to rescue a castaway on nearby Tabor Island. The group rescue the man, who turns out to be Tom Ayrton, a character from another Verne story In Search of the Castaways. This man was once a crew member on a pirate ship! On their way home they are struggling to find their island in a sudden storm when the mysterious benefactor strikes again. A signal fire has been lit to guide them home.

Things then go rather crazy when the pirate ship also finds the island. After the pirates unsuccessfully attempt to take Granite House their ship suddenly blows up! This brings us to the next stamp. Note the strange silhouette in the water beneath the ship. This is a clue as to the identity of the benefactor.

Rather annoyed with the destruction of their ship, the surviving pirates kidnap Tom Ayrton. Our castaways try to get Aryton back, but one of them,. Harber, is shot, seriously wounding him. He survives, but he's so weak that he contracts malaria. Enter the benefactor again. He leaves a box of quinine sulphate, which saves Haber.

After Harbert recovers, they set out again to rescue Ayrton and destroy the pirates once and for all. When they discover Ayrton he is alive and well, and the pirates are all dead, without any visible wounds. Suddenly, a figure emerges in a strange helmet...

The figure is the mysteriois benefactor in the flesh. He removes his helmet, revealing himself to be none other than... Captain Nemo! After his adventures in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo has sailed his Nautilus (the strange silhouette under the water in the last two stamps) to the island to live in isolation (an idea that didn't work out all that well).

Until next time...

Friday, 4 August 2017

France 1961 - Aristide Maillol

A master tapestry designer, painter, and sculptor, Aristide Maillol was a man of many talents. Born 8 December 1861 in Banyuls-sur-Mer, Roussillon, France, Malliol apparently aspired from a young age to be a painter. In 1881 at the age of 20 he moved to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. Unfortunately things didn't work out as well as he had hoped. He applied to the art school several times and received rejection after rejection. By the time the school finally did accept his application in 1885, Malliol had been living for some time in poverty. I've been unable to find anything about he his studies went, but it would probably not be a stretch to say he did very well.

Mallol's early paintings were heavily influenced by contemporary greats Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Paul Gauguin. In fact, Gauguin took an interest in Malliol's work, particularly his decorative art. Gauguin was so impressed that he encouraged Malliol in this direction, which led him to try his hand at tapestry design. Malliol excelled in this art form, and even opened his own tapestry workshop. Malliol gained critical acclaim for the work produced in his workshop. His work sparked a new wave of interest for tapestry design in France. 

But Malliol was keen to broaden his artistic horizons by experimenting in other mediums. In 1895 he began making sculptures in terracotta. Within a few short years Malliol was totally hooked on the art of sculpture. So much so that he completely abandoned his work with tapestry art. Indeed, Malliol is now probably most remembered by his beautiful sculptures celebrating the nude female form. One such sculpture was titled Woman aka The Mediterranean circa 1905. 


On 20 February 1961 France issued a stamp celebrating the work of Aristide Malliol. The stamp was issued just under one hundred years after his birth. It was designed and engraved by Albert Decaris. The subject of the stamp was the statue The Mediterranean as mentioned above.

I find this piece of work fascinating. It is the work of one artist, Albert Decaris, utilising his own artistic style to replicate a famous sculpture. I know what your probably saying: stamp engravers have reproduced thousands of pieces of art! That is very true. But within this stamp in particular I can discern the caricature-like style of Decaris blended with the unique talents of Malliol. An impressive piece of stamp art indeed!

Until next time... 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Mali 1981 - Pierre Curie

French physicist Pierre Curie, born 15 May 1859, is perhaps best known for his work in radioactive studies with his wife, Marie Curie. But he was also a pioneer in the study of magnetism. Studies which have greatly impacted on our modern way of life. With his brother Jacques, he studied crystallography. Through this research, the brothers discovered what is known as the piezoelectric effect. Basically this effect shows that the magnetic properties of a given substance change at a specific temperature, a level now known as the Curie point. The piezoelectric effect has many practical applications in the modern world. Many gas burners, ranges, and electric cigarette lighters have a built-in piezo based injection systems. Even modern music benefits from Curie's discovery! Microphones and electrically amplified guitars utilise piezoelectric technology. 

In 1895, Pierre married a fellow scientist by the name of Maria Skłodowska. History knows this woman as Marie Curie. Juggling a busy teaching schedule and working with inferior equipment, Pierre and Marie joined forces, working to isolate the elements of radium and polonium. Incidentally, Marie named polonium after her home country, Poland. Their hard travails were rewarded when in 1903 they won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Not only that, the radioactive unit 'the curie' was named after them (some say this was named after just Pierre, but I'd like to think it was to honour both scientists).

Tragically, Pierre was run over by a horse-drawn carriage on 19 April 1906 in Paris. It is believed, however, that had he not suffered this fate, he likely would have died of the effects of his prolonged exposure to radiation during his and his wife's studies. Indeed, Marie Curie later died of the effects of deadly radiation. Ironically, the Curies' daughter, Irène, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, also studied radiation, and they both died due to radiation exposure. And they too won a Nobel Prize in 1935, this time in the field of chemistry. Their other daughter, Ève, wrote an award-winning biography of her mother. And she married a diplomat, Henry Labouisse, who just so happened to have... Wait for it... Won a Nobel Peace Prize! Quite a family!


On 25 May 1981, Mali issued a stamp honouring the scientific research of Pierre Curie. This lovely tribute stamp was designed and engraved by French engraver, Pierre Albuisson. This was Albuisson's first ever engraved stamp. And I think it is brilliant. The fine details of the pieces of scientific apparatus is superb. I also consider Pierre's beard an engraved masterpiece, full of life and energy. 


Pierre Albuisson now has over 150 engraved stamps to his name for France and her territories, namely Monaco and French Southern and Antarctic Territories (TAAF). He has even engraved a Marianne for France, the Marianne de Cheffer in 2007. For a full Pierre Albuisson biography pop across to Adrian Keppel's great Stamp Engravers blog post HERE. I really look forward to studying more of his stamps as I acquire them.

Until next time...