A cyber-exhibition of postage stamps by Lin Yangchen

17 December 2015

Total solar eclipse, France, 1999
©Luc Viatour

A cancellation on a postage stamp is like a signature certifying that its bearer has been mobilized in the line of duty. Bull's-eye cancellations in particular, also known as 'socked on the nose', belong to a special class much as total solar eclipses do. This is because most other cancellations are considerably off centre, for the practical purposes of tying the stamp to the envelope or cancelling two or more adjacent stamps simultaneously. In the extreme case of first-day covers, the cancellation is carefully positioned so that it touches only a tiny bit of the stamp in a corner. Such a dissociation of stamp and postmark naturally leaves them yearning for each other's company.

The concentric rings on this 1894 half-cent pink synergize with the circles in the four corners upon a weathered substratum of quaint carvings, recalling a meditative Tibetan buddhist painting of the mandala (universe). The author wonders if the inner circle of the datestamp was not designed to be the same size as the one in the stamp, to the ends of bureaucratic convenience and/or in the desire for mathematical beauty.

Kowloon City Post Office, located very near the fabled Kai Tak Airport. Stamps cancelled on the bull's-eye are a contrapuntal manifestation of miniature art, all encapsulated within the monolithic portrait rectangle of the small definitive format. Titillating dissonance and tension are generated, akin to multiple lines of music weaving the complex polyphonic texture of a great symphony.

One of the early issues of Johore, with 'JOHOR' overprinted on the Queen Victoria definitive of the Straits Settlements and issued from 1884 to 1891. Historical and technical details of the overprint are discussed by Pratt (1971). There was considerable disagreement between the Colonial Office and the local postal authorities as to whether the state name should be spelt with an 'e' at the end (Pratt 1971). An 1884 letter from the Postmaster General of Johore to the Postmaster General of the Straits Settlements requested for the 'e' to be included, but it was turned down. Previous (?) and subsequent issues included the 'e'.

The Johore Bahru cancellor 88D1 (Peters 1961, Selzer 1962) features the ancient crescent and star, here the state emblem denoting Islam and the sultan (above). This was considered a very important symbol of the state, seemingly more so even than the date which was left out altogether. Here the cancellation is seen in (almost) all its glory, an unusually crisp impression superimposed on 'JOHOR', centred on the head of the queen and encircled by the letters 'JOHORE BAHRU'. We see both spellings 'JOHOR' and 'JOHORE' on this stamp.

The Penny Black (1840), the world's first postage stamp. This Plate 4 impression has a chilli-red Maltese Cross bull's-eye cancellation that makes the queen look as if she is wearing the armour of a mediæval knight. It is the author's proposition, however, that bulls' eyes are at their most glorious when they appear as concentric rings in both stamp and postmark.

Connoisseurs of Penny Blacks regard perfectly straight and even margins around the stamp as mandatory criteria for quality and value, but the author finds that boring. He prefers ragged margins that belie the way the stamp was naturally used. The example above demonstrates all aspects of manual separation by hand: variable width (left, right, top), slanted cut (top), curved scissors cut (left, right) and tearing (bottom).

The Penny Lilac of 1881—1901. Over 34 billion were issued. The wetting of this specimen has not only faded the fugitive ink but also triggered the chromatographic separation of the datestamp.

King Oscar II (issued 1891), postmarked in Helsingborg during the Russian Empire period. Transilluminated to show underlying structure.

The Matrix
An alignment of digital and organic internal structures brought about by perfect centering and rotation, further fused together through identical charcoal-black inks.

Crosshairs (parcel post).

A hand cancel completing the RGB components.

The ghostly green and black of the BMA Malaya 50c evokes the kind of eerie scene visualized through military night-vision goggles, complete with the red laser sights of assault rifles. There is a certain sexiness in the torn corners of the stamp, perhaps not unlike that in ripped-jeans fashion. The scars and toning of a used postage stamp tell the tale of its adventures, a world apart from its mint cousins living out their days in climate-controlled bank vaults.

The pan-empire Coronation Issue, the queen crowned by the name of the post office and peeking out over the date slug. This particular juxtaposition of stamp and postmark is a study in ellipse geometry, including the special case of the circle where eccentricity = 0.

The legendary Machin definitive, cancelled at an unearthly hour. Bulls' eyes are even less common on modern stamps because of the widespread use of meter marks and automatic franking machines. Even where there is a well centred cancellation it is often smudged before it has had the chance to dry, especially on the glossy, relatively non-absorbent coated surfaces of modern stamps.

Buff-breasted kingfisher, Papua New Guinea (1981). This one is extra special because it was done by a machine, as is evidenced by the tips of the horizontal lines on the right. One even feels a subtle tension between the organic curves of nature and the spirit-level precision of the machine chop. This feat, alas, was most likely accomplished with some help from the stamp licker who had diligently measured the automatic positioning of the franking machine. Care has apparently been taken with the vertical positioning as well, the cross-intersection of the perching branch and the bird's anterior-posterior axis falling neatly within the circle while leaving the bird's head and neck in such a superior position as befits a monarch's portrait.

all stamp images ©Lin Yangchen
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The inspiration for the author's collection of bull's-eye cancels arose from stimulating exchanges with fellow members on the Stampboards forum.


Peters, G. P. T. 1961. The double ring cancellations of Johore. The Malayan Philatelist 3:15—16.

Pratt, P. C. 1971. Johore: notes on the overprinted Straits Settlements stamps. The Malayan Philatelist 12:17—19.

Selzer, H. J. 1962. An illustrated index of the cancellations and postal markings of Malaya. The Malayan Philatelist 4:47—49.
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