Coconut stamp design - Lin Yangchen
©Lin Yangchen


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Affinities with Africa continued after the Zanzibar definitives, in a Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (KUT) design. The two designs were actually born at around the same time. In 1934, while the essays for the Malayan stamps were being produced, a stamp design competition was held for the KUT definitives (Coulton 2001). The design by A. Ross (Edward Mosely comm.) took the prize.


(stamps shown at different scales)

Besides the obvious resemblances, both designs carry a subtle feature: the background sunset shading. I cannot help but wonder if De La Rue introduced this refinement across the continents, since both issues were contracted to them. We know for sure that De La Rue added the sunset to the Malayan design, since the essays had not been so "lighted".

The KUT definitive presents itself as a more flamboyant cousin of the coconut definitive. The heavy lion, bold letter strokes and loudly decorated medallion frame give it a hint of Art Deco, a style characterized by bold colours and bold geometry that is much less common on the stamps of the British Empire than on those of continental Europe and Latin America.


The design could have been inspired by artwork of the type shown on this trade card. It belonged to a furs-and-seal-skins dealer that was in business since at least the first half of the 19th century (The London Gazette), although the date of the artwork itself is unknown. The London address is embellished with a scene from Africa, with African big cats and coconut palms.

I don't like the KUT design very much. The palms, having fronds that are too thick and straight, are less realistic than those in the Malayan design. Their leaning trunks and asymmetric heights also make them more pictorial than architectural, giving the stamp a less commanding disposition than the Malaya issues. Furthermore, the oval seems too long for the proportions of the king's bust.

Some, however, prefer the KUT design over the Malaya one, citing the former's striking colours and stronger pictorial narrative through the presence of more trees and the lion among other landscape elements.

Meanwhile, in the 1930s, the Cayman Islands had their own Realist bicoconut designs apparently unrelated to the African and Malayan branch(es) of the "evolutionary tree". This one is proportionally very different from the KUT and Malaya issues. A huge crown makes it top-heavy, while identical and relatively unremarkable conch shells—each almost as large as the king’s head—occupy the spaces where one would expect to see the denomination. The coconut palms feel "smaller than life".

In 1938, one of the denominations of the Cayman Islands KGVI definitives again featured two coconut palms flanking the scene. It was even more awkward this time. The king's portrait is stuck between the leaves, high above the beach, and the palms can't "sway in the wind". The palms are probably a different variety from the Malayan ones.

The neighbouring island of Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea seemed to have been influenced by the Cayman's tree-top portrait and extra pairs of smaller palms. But when Jamaica issued its version in 1956, the palms had been fixed. They now looked more natural, complete with slanting trunks seemingly swaying in the sea breeze. But there's something even more impressive. Like the Malaya issue, the designer effectively portrayed the coconut palms as structural elements supporting the monarch's vignette while retaining their botanical realism. Alas, the coconuts appeared on only the lowest denomination in the whole set.

All the designs evaluated so far are from the British Empire, but their rivals the Dutch produced their own bicoconut for their colonies too. This Queen Wilhelmina definitive (1913–1938) was designed by Jan Veth, engraved by D. Harting and printed by Joh. Enschedé (Schiller & de Kruyf 1940, Riddell 1970). But botanical illustration apparently wasn't their forte. If the palms on the Malayan definitive are flimsy, as Easton reckoned (Halewood 2007), the ones on this stamp are much worse. They are spindly even by coconut standards, and one frond on each palm is awkwardly pushed out of position by the vignette. The trunks are shaded with vertical lines, which are erroneous from a botanical perspective. The trunks are also uncomfortably squashed against the vignette, perhaps to make space for the fronds. Distant mountains are a nice touch, but there's a lot of dead space at the top and bottom of the stamp, filled in by heavy Greco-Roman slabs and generic texturing. The tallish aspect ratio doesn't help—see discussion of ratios. It lacks local flavour too. The design was used in the Netherlands East and West (Suriname and Curaçao) Indies. It boasts the distinction of being the most well-travelled bicoconut, having voyaged east across the Eurasian landmass and west across the Atlantic from its birthplace in Europe. As fate would have it, the great war brought the Malayan coconuts to the Netherlands East Indies, whence they became the new envelope gems and assured the supremacy of the De La Rue design in the Far East.

[image coming soon]

In my opinion, the Dutch had greater success with coconut stamps in the West Indies. This 1927 Queen Wilhelmina exudes stylistic unity, being distinctively Art Noveau in the graceful curves of botanical morphologies. It was designed, engraved and printed by Enschedé (Riddell 1970). The queen's portrait was based on a photograph by H. Deutmann of The Hague (Riddell 1970). One can't really blame the palm fronds for aspiring to more luxuriance than in real life. Unlike the Malayan coconuts, the design is finely recess-engraved with low contrast. This goes well with the placid character of Art Noveau.

It would seem that bicoconut stamp designs were as cosmopolitan as the real plant. But in the end, the track record of Malaya's coconut definitive speaks for itself. The African, Caribbean and Dutch designs never attained the kind of universality enjoyed by the Malayan design.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Tash Kreditanstalt for discussions that improved this article.

References



Almost an afterthought: the coconut palm as a space-filler?
Dr Sun Yat-sen, Taiwan 1947.


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