©Lin Yangchen

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Is an engraved postage stamp more like a tiger or a zebra?

This question occurred to me when a friend posted a picture of herself standing beside a zebra on Facebook. The beautiful black and white stripes on the beast reminded me of the engraved lines running across the faces of the heads of state on the coconut definitives.

Numerous aspects of the engraving of postage stamp dies have been discussed in depth, including the engravers (particularly the legendary Ferdinand Joubert), the metallurgy, the techniques, and differences between the work of skilled and less skilled engravers (e.g. Lush & Skinner 2018). Yet the engraved lines themselves are rarely closely examined.

Those lines, which dissolve into a continuous shade when viewed by the everyday man who licks a stamp and affixes it to a letter, could possess interesting characteristics that are not immediately obvious (Lin 2019g), as examples from the animal world show.

Godfrey et al. (1987) discovered that tiger stripes and zebra strips serve very different purposes despite looking very similar. Using Fourier analysis, they found that the spatial frequency distribution of the stripes on a tiger—i.e. the spacing between the stripes—closely matches that of the long grass the tiger is hiding in. In contrast, the spacing of stripes on the zebra is very different from that of the grass around the animal. This, according to Godfrey et al., is because the zebra’s stripes are for display rather than camouflage; it needs to stand out, not blend in.

The design of the coconut definitives contains three sets of “stripes”: those lines in the face of the head of state, in the background within the vignette and in the background of the duty plate. It turns out that these three regions were not always engraved with the same line spacing compared with one another, although one might assume them to be. After all, there were 11 different portraits to be engraved, excluding Kedah’s sheaf of rice and the arms of Negri Sembilan. Some stamps are tigers, some are zebras, and some are both tigers and zebras at the same time. Nevertheless, they are always the same animal or pair of animals on the stamps bearing a given head of state.

The King George VI stamp is the only example of what I call a tiger portrait and a tiger vignette: the line spacing of the king’s face is similar to that of his background within the vignette, which in turn is similar to the background lines in the surrounding duty plate.

King George V, in contrast, is like a zebra. The lines on his face are more densely packed than those in the vignette. Indeed, he looks slightly more tan than George VI, although it might not have been the case in real life. The vignette, however, is a tiger, like the George VI stamp.

The functional analogy to tigers and zebras is not perfect. In an engraved stamp, it is not only line spacing but also line thickness (the subject of another discourse) that makes objects stand out and look three-dimensional. Unlike animals, whose stripes arise spontaneously according to the famous Turing (1952) equations, stamps are the fruit of conscious human creativity.

The post-war issues carrying the Malay sultans and Queen Elizabeth II differ from those of the pre-war kings in having zebra vignettes. All of them have more densely packed lines in the vignette than in the duty plate. Some, like Pahang (top), show a pronounced difference in the spacing, while others like Perak and QEII (bottom) show only a slight difference—like different species of zebra.

Perlis: zebra portrait, zebra vignette.

In 2018, the author visited an exhibition held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to celebrate 50 years since the Cybernetic Serendipity International Exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968. It was an exposition of the computer-generated art movement that began in the 1960s. One of the exhibits was Interference Matrix (1978) by Dominic Boreham, who passed Fortran commands to a flatbed plotter with a pen.

Head Portrait Vignette
KGV zebra tiger
KGVI tiger tiger
Johore tiger zebra
Kedah (sultan) zebra zebra
Kelantan tiger zebra
Pahang tiger zebra
Perak tiger zebra
Perlis zebra zebra
Selangor tiger zebra
Trengganu zebra zebra
QEII tiger zebra

Classification of coconut definitives according to engraved line spacing. “Tiger” means that the line spacing is similar between an entity (portrait or vignette) and its background (vignette or duty plate respectively), while “zebra” means that the line spacing is different.

The variations across heads of state support the scenario that different engravers were assigned different heads at De La Rue. This, however, does not explain the difference between the KGV and KGVI heads. According to De La Rue (1952), Leonard Vincent Phillips was responsible for engraving every monarch from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II. There is, however, nothing to stop one engraver from approaching each job differently and evolving over time.

The findings also indicate that the engravers were given the artistic liberty to carve out their own details, as long as macroscopic criteria such as vignette dimensions were adhered to. It is even possible that each animal-animal pair corresponds to one engraver.

I am grateful to Lim Yi Han for turning on a light bulb with her zebra picture.


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