Coconut stamp design - Lin Yangchen
  • Coconut stamp design

©Lin Yangchen

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The Malaya coconut definitive has a contemporary from Africa too. It first caught the author’s eye while he was flipping through an auction catalogue. For a moment he thought he saw the Malaya coconut definitive, so striking was the resemblance. The background sunset lines, especially, are almost too similar to be coincidental.

Printed by the same firm of De La Rue at around the same time as the coconut definitive, these issues of the combined British territories of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (KUT) were from a different designer (reportedly R.C. Luck) and present themselves as more flamboyant cousins of the coconut definitive.

The large patches of homogeneous colour 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 author has a few gripes about the KUT design. The coconut trees above, having fronds that are too thick and straight, are less realistic than those in the Malaya stamps. 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 excessively elongate 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.

Did one of the designs—Malaya or KUT—lead to the other, or was it a case of convergent evolution facilitated by the global biogeography of the coconut?

Adding to the mystery is the state of Bhopal on the Indian subcontinent, one of whose unadopted essays bears an uncanny resemblance to the KUT design. Thought to have been designed by T.I. Archer, this essay features a tiger instead of lion, and generic trees instead of coconut palms.

While the essays for the Malayan stamps were produced in 1933 or 1934, a stamp design competition was held in 1934 for the KUT definitives (Coulton 2001). The question of who copied who, if at all, may never be answered even if the dates were ascertained, since the design ideas themselves might have been circulating prior to those dates.

Another contemporary design, from the Cayman Islands, also features the king flanked by two coconut trees, but is very different in its proportions. This was printed by Waterlow & Sons.

A huge Imperial State 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 trees, arguably the most majestic elements in the design, are crammed into narrow margins, disproportionate to their size in real life.

In 1938, one of the denominations of the Cayman Islands KGVI definitives again featured two coconut trees flanking the scene. It was even more awkward this time, the medallion (containing the king) being stuck between the crowns of the trees, high above the beach.

Perhaps it was the awkwardness of proportion and incongruence of pictorial elements that prevented the African and Caribbean designs from attaining the kind of universality that the coconut definitives enjoyed. In fact, the designs were confined to just a couple of denominations in the set.


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