Friday, 23 March 2012

The Ups and Downs of an Artist's Life... or ... A lot of Hot Air

We left The Royal Air Force in 1983 for me to become a professional artist. 

We won the best new business in the County of Wiltshire, UK, within months of leaving the RAF, and as a part of the prize we 'won' an accountant and an agent; free for 12 months.

In this new crazy art world, the agent got me a twelve months contract with, of all people.......................the Royal Air Force Museum in London. 

I knew nothing about postal stamps when I went to meet the folks at the museum, other than I had collected them as a kid. I hadn't realised that Philatelic First Day Covers were BIG Business. Let me explain how it works. Postal and Mail services tend to bring out a new series of stamps every few months and it makes them a fortune as collectors from all over the world buy the new stamps. Big institutions and charities, such as the RAF museum, saw the potential and designed envelopes to suit the new stamps. They then attached the new stamps and sold the envelopes, on the first day the postal stamps were issued, as First Day Covers. Over the years the museum had developed, globally, a whole network of thousands and thousands of fanatical collectors, and made millions of pounds each year to help fund the museum..

So what did a museum want from me, I wondered? It seemed that the British Postal Services were to bring out a series of stamps to commemorate the Mail Coaches -US folk, think Stage Coaches & Wells Fargo :0)

The museum saw the potential, for 1983/4 was going to be the bicentenary of the first flights in Europe and Britain. As the Mail Coach stamps were to be in monochrome, they wanted the envelopes designed by a pen & ink artist ....[enter our hero, stage left].

There was an overlap between the British Postal Services and the Post Office of Jersey, and so my first few  envelope designs were of French balloonists for the Jersey Post Office - the Montgolfier brothers for example. 

Then I began on the British collection. I had a young RAF pilot - he was waiting for a flying training course - assigned to do my 'leg work'. He did the basic research for each cover. We then designed a potted history of the specific event, based on his materials (first flight in Britain - first flight across the channel etc..) and had the history printed on a postcard and inserted in each envelope. 

It was a bit scary at first, for there was no specification or direction, just a list of events they wanted covered - I had carte-blanche, and so just did my thing.I began selecting and then drawing the appropriate scenes. Next I designed the coloured picture, on silk, of the balloon:

 I then designed the rest of the artwork, right down to the rubber stamp to cancel the postal stamp:  

The reason that the museum's first day covers were so popular was because we got all our covers flown in an appropriate aircraft and signed by the pilot. So my next step was finding somewhere where there were hot air balloons ... I discovered 
the Bristol Balloon Fiesta

I've heard of flying commissions - but here I was each day, airborne, in a balloon assisting the pilot to sign thousands of envelopes.

Pat sold a lot of my own aircraft prints whilst we were at the fiesta, but that's by the bye!

The next move was to get the covers overprinted with the flight details - and then we were ready to ship to the collectors.

There were about twenty covers altogether (I think) and I became a bit of an expert on the balloonists of that period - how could I not?Did you know that balloons, like Lunardi's Hydrogen balloon (above), were used in the American Civil War? 

I have just started a self-illustrated biography of  the balloonists, James Tyler and Vincento Lunardi. I'll keep you posted as I go ...there is a university vaguely interested in publishing it (keep everything crossed for me.)


  1. Wow - what a story! So really you are quite famous then, lol ;0)
    Those intricate designs are remarlable!
    I will definitely keep everything crossed for you! :0)

  2. The idea of being famous makes me grin. I just wanted to get the subject around to balloonists :0)) I hope it didn't seem as if I were showing off, because it's all so long ago that it feels like I'm talking about someone else.

    Thanks for the good wishes though, Sandra. I'm always the optimist, Dundee University Press lost interest in the book idea, I suppose this one will as well. It's too small an audience for such a specialist book, they say.
    Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Hi John, what an amazing blog you have! I have to come back to read all your other posts and to take a good look at your wonderful designs. This story about the balloons is wonderful! I'll keep everything crossed for you too!

  4. Hello Judy - thank you for your kind comments. We must talk about Holland sometime.