Reading List

Sunday 18 December 2011

Merry Christmas everyone!

I promised you a Christmas card this week.

And so here it is.... complete with a Google tour of the house it was sent to in Bath. Before it got put into the postcard album, let's hope it got an airing on the piano. A house like that must have a piano? Mustn't it?

Anyway, wishing you.... and the current residents of Claremont Villa.... a very merry Christmas!

Have a great holiday everyone and see you in 2012!

Much love, Guy.

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Sunday 11 December 2011

Self-captioned portraits

This month the fashion company ESPRIT started an ad campaign in which models tell us what they are "wishing for" this Christmas.

How do we know what they want? 

They've written it on pieces of card. They've held these cards up. And then they've looked at us... down the lens of a camera. 

Self-captioned portraits. If you like.

The messages are messy and clear. Messy - to make us feel like they are spontaneous, and therefore genuine. Clear - to make sure we can read them when we're waiting for the bus.

Even putting aside the banality of the wish list - lottery wins, "real happiness" and "harmony with nature" - the campaign has really irked me. 

I know when you analyse advertising, it can make you cross. An advert is only successful if it makes you feel short of something. And admen/women will use all the tricks in their books to give you a desire itch.

But this campaign has crossed the line... it's mangled the work of an artist I really like. That of Gillian Wearing. 

Not that using elements of others' work is in itself always bad, of course. I admit Wearing's work was an influence on the images I took of the "postcard tour" I did at a bookshop in May

But if done badly or for a dubious motive, there's a risk the original artwork itself is undermined. Classical music has been an obvious victim of this. Listen to a Puccini opera and at some point you'll inevitably find yourself thinking about buying a new car or, worse still, renewing your home insurance.

In particular, ESPRIT's campaign brought to mind: Wearing's “Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say”; the Volkswagen advert that Wearing suggested was based on her work; and DHL's fanverts at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand this year  - where fans were encouraged to hold up handwritten messages on boards, framed with DHL logos.

For her piece, Wearing approached strangers in public spaces, and asked them to write a spontaneous message on an A3 piece of paper. She then took a photo of them holding the paper. 

Below is one of the first photos in the series. 

It shows a woman holding the message “I REALLY LOVE REGENTS PARK”. With it, Wearing skillfully counters the notion that when it comes to looking at photos ‘you can no longer trust your eyes'. The woman is photographed in a park, suggesting a chance encounter between photographer and subject. 

To create a credible narrative across the series of photos, Wearing uses the same white paper and black marker pen in each, making visible the process of her arranging the photoshoots - you can picture Wearing approaching the volunteers and asking them to join in her project. 

In each photo, the direct gaze into the camera gives the impression the individual is content to be photographed in this way; they are fully aware of what is going on.  And having written the message themselves, they have been given more than a bit of control over how the photo will be read by those that see it. 

With 'authenticity' established, the photos make us believe in the people in the photos. 

For ESPRIT, I guess they want us to think the same of their images. These people are real. Their views are real. Their love of ESPRIT is real. 

There is a problem though for ESPRIT. And it stems from not letting anything interesting or confusing be written on the boards. If applying Wearing's techniques has made us believe in the people photographed and all they've written are trite, empty 'wishes', then aren't we simply left convinced that the brand is for people who themselves are genuinely boring? 

Or is that wishful thinking on my part? 

PS Don't worry, I'll cheer up for Christmas! And on the next post I'll have an update on the Japanese postcard from last week. Am very excited about this. Thanks to Rupert and Fuyu for sending in their translations.

Plus, I have a great card with which to wish you a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Lost in translation

I picked this card up at a fair on Sunday. It's a treasure. 

How a card sent from San Francisco to Yokohama, Japan, in 1916 ends up in London in 2011 goodness only knows. But here it is, at £8. 

Would be really grateful for an English translation? I've sent the feelers out on Facebook to a couple of Japanese friends so fingers crossed.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Thank you Debs, Postcardy and PFF!

I thought I'd share some good news with you this week - I managed to pass my masters degree at Goldsmiths.

As you might remember, after messing around with some post-it notes I wrote my dissertation on why old postcards are intriguing today. Here's an extract which gives a very big knuckle tap on the shoulder to the brilliant Postcard Friendship Friday, run each week by Beth in Oregon.

Thanks everyone for your support and, as you'll see below, special thanks to the PFF gang; your expertise was invaluable....

Tilted stamps

Two years ago I set up a website to explore the messages in my collection of postcards.  

The site was adopted by a group called Postcard Friendship Friday, hosted by Beth Niquette in Oregon, Ohio. The group is typical of the 'super-niches' that the internet allows us to develop in some part of our lives.  

Each week members post images of old cards they have found, explaining why the cards appeal and how they came across them. Tastes vary across the group, with each member specializing further within the category of postcards: 

“Bob of Holland” specializes in vintage postcards of European film stars; 

“Mr Cachet” a retired artist from Montana explores the history of the printed word; and

“Postcardy” a collector from Minnesota collects vintage comic postcards. 

The collectors leave postcard-sized messages on the comment boards for others to read. 

In June 2010 I wrote a post on a mesmerizing card sent to Miss L. Warden in London in 1904. Having taken scans of the ‘front’ and ‘back’, I presented a full anatomy of the card. 

On the ‘front’ the sender had annotated the image of The Exchange buildings in Liverpool, at the time a centre for trade in the city. He (or she?) used various signs and a key to direct the way the reader would approach the card: with a double-feathered arrow he showed where he worked and with a dotted cross highlighted “a broken down cotton speculator”. 

On the ‘back’ he drew a map of Britain, outlining the route of his rail trip from London, adding a reference to Hastings which presumably meant something to Miss Warden. 

The next day I checked the site’s comment board only to find my analysis had been exposed as incomplete. “Postcardy” and "Debs" had spotted a further detail which needed to be acknowledged in any deciphering of the card: 

I could not believe I had missed this aspect of postcards. I looked through my collection and found twenty or thirty examples of cards where the King’s head had been placed on an angle, or even stuck upside down. In one example, besides the address there was only a tilted stamp on the card. 

At the next fair, I found cards presenting a whole “Language of Stamps”.  

Yet again, for all its apparent familiarity the Golden Age postcard had reasserted its status as an endlessly foreign object.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Text, Image and Geoffrey Farmer

In October I went to the Istanbul Biennial - a big art exhibition in Turkey's largest city. Spread across two hangar-like buildings, you need stamina and plenty of chewy Turkish coffee to get through it all.

It is huge.

We spent five hours there. By the end, I felt kind of ill. Knackered. And somewhat empty of feeling.

I guess if art plays with your senses, it's not surprising you involuntarily shutdown after a while at these shows. You can only do justice to so many of the artists. You want to see them all. But can't give energy to every piece. I find I just want to be outside, away from everyone and everything, and even further away from artists' interpretations of the world.

But with time (thankfully!), the noise (and pain) disappear and you're left with the bits that moved you.

Geoffrey Farmer's collage sculpture Pale Fire Freedom Machine is the installation that has stayed clearest in my mind.

Consisting of two hundred or so magazine pictures of people, objects and buildings, Farmer had curated a flash of his mind. Or our minds.

Image credit: Raphael Goldchaim courtesy of Mousse Magazine

For me, the room suspended lingering, floating, media-ed images of a regular modern day. With photos fixed on small sticks and mounted on tiny blocks, the arrangement made visible unpredictable links we make when we let images settle. Naked figures next to a collection of chairs. Bomb clouds next to African masks. And despots alongside teapots, and the like.

What I loved, was the experience of walking around the 2D images... to inspect the text on the other side.

Did Farmer leave to chance what was on the reverse sides of the images? References to 9/11 on one photo suggested he didn't.

In fact the longer you stayed in the room, the more you felt obliged to tackle the text. Sometimes taken from an article related to the image, sometimes not. But always giving authenticity to the idea that the images had come from a magazine or newspaper you or I might have read. And always shifting your take of the image on the other side, and those around it.

As I work up ideas for publishing and installing something around postcard messages, Farmer's work is useful. As is, a piece written by Roland Barthes on the tensions between text and image; how one steers our reading of the other. If you're interested, I've tracked down an online copy here... The Rhetoric of the Image.

For sure, any installation would be worthless if it didn't make use of both sides of the cards. And seeing what Farmer pulled off, the challenge of displaying two-sided objects like the cards has become more an inspiration than a problem. Which I had seen it as for a long time.

Monday 17 October 2011

When a postcard becomes a placard

For the best part of a year, I've been involved in a project called Save Our Placards. At the second biggest demonstration ever in the UK on 26 March 2011, a group of us asked people how they wanted the Museum of London to remember the march against government spending cuts.

Photo credit: Guardian

It was an epic project. In the end, more than 400 people donated their placards, flags and costumes. Enough for an exhibition at the museum a week later.

Watching the Occupy protests this week has brought back a lot of great memories of the March For The Alternative. Of the woman who gave me her "protest umbrella" on Piccadilly, even though it was starting to rain.  Of seeing a man walk the length of Hyde Park to give us his TAX NOT AXE axe. And of nervously leaving a minibus packed full of angry cardboard joy on a London street overnight.

As if on cue Liza, a formidable campaigner from Vermont, sent me this today ... a postcard-come-placard. I love what Liza has done - twisting the standard lines on old postcards. We expect nostalgia, yet we get a protestor's sting. Very clever. Thank you Liza.

And a big hello to my placard partners in crime (Mark Teh, Hafiz Nasir, Svein Moxvold and Lolo Galindo) who are now spread across the globe. Wish you were here....?

Friday 7 October 2011


A trend for 2011 has been the re-emergence of the post-it. This week, at Apple stores across the world, it was the low-tech post-it note that people used to pay tribute to the hi-tech visionary Steve Jobs. 

Photo credit: Twitter user @lautenbach

In London over the summer, we had the Peckham Peace Wall after the riots. People expressed their frustration, shock and optimism on notes stuck to a boarded-up discount shop.

Photo credit: Flickr user Celie

In Paris, there was even La guerre des Post-Its. Office workers competed over who could make the best art from the sticky notes.

Photo credit:

What is it about the post-it note that makes it popular now? 

Low-tech. Physical. Mobile. Playful. Free from rules of grammar and etiquette. Anonymous.  I guess all of these. 

Post-Its were massively useful for me over the summer as I ordered my thoughts on old postcards for my dissertation. Not just because they were easy to move about but because they made me engage with the form - the short, written message. 

There's more in this... any thoughts?

Thursday 29 September 2011

Lost in admiration

At a fair, most collectors will come and go from a dealer in a matter of minutes. “Any new churches today, Brian?” “Don’t think so, but you’re welcome to have a look."

They know what they want. And a dealer's cards will be ordered by popular collecting categories to make searching easy. It might be a certain place or artist that a collector is after, or pictures of a famous Edwardian actor or politician.

I'll typically stay hunched over one or two stalls the entire time, until my eyes tire.

A good message could be in any box.

While staying in one position can be exhausting, the advantage is you get to eavesdrop on passing trade...

Dealer 1 (holding his friend’s card): I’ve never seen such a good gypsy card. I mean the expressions on their faces…

Dealer 2: I found another one as well which was pretty amazing. And that was £80. How many times have I ever had great photos of gypsies like that in the last 40 years?

Dealer 1: Who does get them?

Dealer 2: Jeremy, not very often.

Dealer 1: Who does get them? They’re just not there. No, no.

Dealer 2: I won’t see another card like that for 20 years. And I won’t be around in another 20 years. I only got them because I would pay whatever people ask for them which means you’re not making money. That’s the problem….

Dealer 1: A card like that will always appreciate in value…. I am lost in admiration for that one.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Before the 'back' was divided

I hope people enjoyed the documentary last week.

A few people have asked since seeing the programme what postcards looked like before the back was 'divided'.

You'll remember the modern card only arrived in 1902 after a German publisher (one F. Hartman) persuaded the Post Office to let him put a picture on the 'front' and then split the other side between message and address.

Well, here's an official card sent in 1875. That's 5 years after the postcard was introduced in the UK. It's much smaller than later cards and is printed in mauve. Only the address could be written on the side shown above, with the message restricted to the other.

You'll also see the stamp comes with the card. No need to buy one.

These cards were all made by De La Rue, the money printers. And incredibly, they were the only cards that could take advantage of the half penny rate for postcards.

De La Rue's monopoly was finally relaxed in 1894 after a campaign by the MP Henniker Heaton. After this, privately-published cards could be sent at the postcard rate. Go Henniker!

When something becomes so familiar, like the form of the postcard, it's easy to forget the people behind it. Yet how the card looks today was not inevitable. It needed people to change things. And in a curious way, the anonymity of Hartman and Heaton today is testament  to the totality of their triumphs.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

The Picture Postcard World of Nigel Walmsley

Edwardian postcards make it onto the small screen on Thursday with The Picture Postcard World of Nigel Walmsley.

Jake Hayes and the rest of the BBC4 team did a great job unpacking their history. Messrs Tuck, Hartmann, Gladstone and all the other postcard heroes would be very proud. And I really enjoyed getting the chance to tell the stories of Dorothy and Miss Emerson.

As well as helping out on the documentary, I've been busy finishing my dissertation on the mysteries of old cards. Thanks for everyone's support. Now that it's handed in (phew!) I'll be writing up bits on Postcardese. Really looking forward to hearing what people think.

As I wrote it I realised the importance of this card from Meg to M. That word on the second line, "tonight", has had an impact on how I see all pre-WW1 cards.

Franked in Putney at 10.45am, Meg was so sure of the Edwardian postal service she was able to plan a trip to the theatre that very evening:

"H and I are going to see the "Girl on the Stage" tonight, would you care to join us..."

With one word the card reveals how postcards were not like they are now. As the documentary explains, rather than being a sign of not caring about the timeliness of a message, they could be sent and received within hours.

And because of this, they become such curious objects. On the one hand foreign, signifying a way of life that has disappeared. But on the other, eerily prescient of our instant means of communication today.

Anyway, I really hope you enjoy the programme. It will be on BBC iPlayer for a few weeks if you miss it on Thursday.

And if you are new to Postcardese, sign up for the newsletter by entering your email in the box on the right hand side.

Or follow @postcardese on Twitter. It's like a 21st century version of the postcard ;)

Wednesday 29 June 2011

The price is part of the card

When I first started collecting, I used to rub out the prices dealers wrote on cards. I don't any more.

I guess I had wanted to restore the cards to how they'd originally looked.

Now, the price mark is part of what I'm buying. It signifies the card's present - that it has a value today. And also that it has passed through many hands since it was first sent.

Monday 30 May 2011

A week is a long time in postcards

Phew. That was quite a week.

It is going to take some time digest it all I think. But I wanted to put some photos up quickly for those who couldn't make the talks... and also for those who did.

Talking at the British Postal Museum & Archive

First up, confirmation that the cards people wrote on Thursday have been sent.


At the end of the talk at the BPMA, three volunteers from the audience (Anna, Fran and Axel) wrote cards using some of the Edwardian techniques for writing postcards that we'd discussed earlier in the night.

The volunteers agreed to enter into a deal.While the BPMA paid for the card and the stamp and they could send the card to whoever they wanted - I would read out the cards at the end of the evening to the rest of the audience.The idea was to explore the open form of the postcard, in that the message can be read by all en route to its destination.

Anna wrote a gingerbread recipe to her friend in Dulwich, Fran a message to her future child (I got it in the end, Fran!) and Axel sent a very poignant note to her grandma. These cards are now in the possession of the Royal Mail.

Once again, thanks to Laura and Alison at the BPMA for inviting me along to speak!

Touring at Waterstone's

I must admit I'm still on something of a high from Saturday's 'postcard tour' at the Gower St branch of Waterstone's. The people that came along were fantastic. Loads of great observations about the cards. In fact the event became a long chat as much as a tour.

We walked around the store taking in the secondhand section, the philosophy and art departments, the fiction area and then back to the secondhand section for some biscuits and jam tarts. And all through the medium of different postcards. So for example, in the fiction department we discussed how postcards have been used as plot devices by authors like E. M. Forster.

Lots to think about. I'm sure the experience will be a source of inspiration for a long time.

But now for the very very exciting bit.

Above are the photos of the cards people got me to write using Edwardian postcardese. In exchange for a free card and free stamp, people gave up part of their privacy by dictating messages to me to write to whoever they wanted. (To stop the slideshow you can just click on the album to have a closer look at some of the cards. Names of addressees have been smudged for data protection...)

Some great messages emerged as you can see. Lots of codes, lots of tilted stamps. And somewhat surreally of course, they are all in the same scrawling handwriting learnt at Longton County Primary school circa 1984.

At the same time, though, there was a serious aspect to all this. Jamming Edwardian postcard writing with our very modern concern for what is public and what is private, made for interesting exchanges. One person described sitting down in the alcove of the store where we were based as "stepping into the confessional". That felt spot on. It was fascinating not just to see what emerged in the messages, but also how people engaged with the 'stranger scribe' scenario.

Thanks again to everyone who came along, and to Jo and Emma for letting me do the tour in the store. Yes, let's do another one in the Autumn!

Playing with the form

Finally, this week has made me realise how much I enjoy this card sent to an R. Wade in 1903, a year after the postcard's reverse side was split to allow people to write both a message and an address on that side. It's a great example of how playing with the form of something, whether it be 'the postcard' or 'the talk', can be a lot of fun.

Monday 23 May 2011

How to make friends in London

Making friends in London can be difficult. Getting a dog is a good start, I'll give you that.... oh hello, what's his name?

Reading someone's else magazine on the Tube, less so... are you reading my magazine? why are you reading my magazine? 

But today I can reveal a new tactic: carrying a 4 foot tall, mock Victorian post box. 

Whether you're in a taxi, on the street corner or in a bookstore, people want to talk to you if you're being pressed into the ground by one of these. I've lived in London for 8 years and after carting one around this morning, I am left amazed by its power. 

Every door was opened for me, one woman wanted to know how I'd made it (for the record I admitted I hadn't). Several people even offered to carry it for me.

Anyway, why was I carrying a mock Victorian postbox? 

On Saturday (28 May) at the Gower Street branch of Waterstone's I'm giving a 'postcard tour' of the shop. And at the end of the tour I'll be offering a free postcard writing service. I'll pay for the stamp (well, the British Postal Museum & Archive will actually) and the postcard, but there's a catch. I'll be writing people's messages for them. 

Of course, to hand will be all the techniques of the Edwardians - tilted stamps, codes and other ways to play with the form. Hopefully I'll be able to put a few examples up of what people asked me to write next week. 

For more details click here or see the postbox in store. There are a few spaces still left on the tour.

And then this Thursday (26 May) is my talk at the BPMA in Clerkenwell, London. Like the Waterstone's tour it's free but you do have to book. Click here for info on how to get a ticket.



Monday 16 May 2011

Good luck with the essay, love from Gilbert and George

Paul Ricoeur noted that when we meet an author "we experience a profound disruption of the peculiar relation that we have with [them] through [their] work.” (Ricoeur 1991, p. 107) 

Meeting an author (or an artist) removes the distance we normally have from them when we consider their books (art). A dialogue is possible where it wasn't before. 

In the case of a book signing, however, it is likely to be an unbalanced dialogue which emerges. Loaded with the scripted thoughts of the reader/consumer and hurried by the queue behind, some of the distance remains. 

I went to see the Gilbert and George postcard art exhibition at the White Cube a few months ago, and thought it would be interesting to see them in person at their book signing at the Tate last week - not least as they too collect old postcards. I went, after a day in the library.

Ricoeur, P., 1991. From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Sunday 10 April 2011

The Emely Post

A few weeks ago I was invited to an artists' residence called The Emely Post at Frances Bardsley School for Girls in Romford, on the outskirts of London.

Two artists, Rosalie Schweiker and Denise Hickey, have created the most extraordinary postal den. It's brilliant.

Students go to tinker with old typewriters, put messages in bottles or simply leave notes for friends in pigeon holes.

Over lunch, a group of us (some students, Denise and I) discussed how Edwardians used postcards. We each read out the message on an old postcard. Then chatted about the stories that lay behind the cards and how the way we communicate has changed over time.

Next, looking at the messages as a whole, we identified some of the techniques the Edwardians used when writing postcards.

So here are some of the Edwardian techniques we discovered;

tilt the stamp if you want to show your affection for the person you are sending the card to

use code if you want to hide what you're saying from prying eyes

make your message snappy if you want to have the most impact, and

think about how you can relate the message on the back to the picture on the front.

Finally, we put these techniques to work by replying to some of the cards we'd read out. Exhausting stuff... but great fun.

Thanks go to the girls, and to Denise and Rosalie... and good luck with future projects!

PS A date for your diary

I'm giving a talk on postcard messages at Clerkenwell Design Week for the British Postal Museum & Archive on Thursday 26 May.

If you'd like to come along, please do. It's going to take place at 7pm at the Phoenix Centre in Farringdon, London.

If you want to reserve a ticket call 020 7239 2570 or email to book. For more details click here.