In The Spotlight


GBCC Past-President Gordon Milne interviews
Jennifer M. Toombs, Prolific international stamp designer


Jennifer Toombs and cat Lucy

Published in the January, 2002 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Milne: First of all, Miss Toombs, thank you for having agreed so willingly to be interviewed for this regular GBCC feature and for so generously having given of your time to answer my many questions. As someone who has admired your work so much over the years, this is, for me, truly a very special pleasure.

For the benefit of those GBCCers who are not aware of your prolific output in the stamp-designing arena over the years, please tell us the circumstances of how you were originally approached to do your first designs for de la Rue.

Toombs: The firm of industrial designers for which I had been working for about a year, Eric Marshall Associates, numbered among their clients Thos. de la Rue, the multi-faceted company which produced items from central-heating boilers right down to playing cards and, of course, postage stamps.

Whereas we had been concerned with the cosmetic appearance of their hardware, we learned that their stamp-production studios in the City of London were overwhelmed with work, and they were prepared to “farm out” some of it to EMA.

As a result, this was my first introduction to postage stamp design and artwork production, and I was instantly hooked!

It fell to me to do most of the work, and at that time I produced artworks, firstly for the Lebanon — IV Mediterranean Games, then three “re-drawings” for Saudi Arabia (including the highly complicated Arabic calligraphy) and thirdly, for Nicaragua, full-coloured illustrations of Pre-Columbian Art.

Milne: Wow! Quite a baptism!

At that early time, what did you find to be the main difference between doing industrial design work and designing stamps?

Toombs: Basically, the scale of things! Don’t forget, we had been working on hardware; and a boiler or radio is a different animal than a postage stamp!

Also, the element of illustration comes into stamp design. But typeface disciplines are the same, whether on stamps or boilers.

Milne: What gave you the inspiration for the design of that first 36-Crown Colonies Churchill Omnibus issue?

Toombs: I think “Upstairs” had a hand in this!

On the night that Sir Winston Churchill died, I heard on the radio that the U.S. Post Office was planning to release a stamp issue to honour him. And I thought: “If they can do it — why can’t we?”

My original thought was a design for the British Post Office. Then the idea hit me like a thunderbolt. I had almost a vision of a famous photo taken during the war of St. Paul’s Cathedral standing intact, in the middle of billowing smoke and flames, like Mount Doom in “Lord of the Rings,” with the great Cross illuminated from the light of the fires. Here I felt was a wonderful symbol of Churchill’s defiance in the face of all odds, of how he rallied our people to stand against the evils of Naziism, especially during the Blitz.

The rest, as they say, is history. My design was submitted, not to the [British] Post Office (who already had their designs in hand) but via Harrison & Sons, the Security Printers, to the Crown Agents, who adopted it, to my utter amazement and delight, for the Crown Colonies Omnibus issue.

Milne: Bravo! From that early vision, happily for the global stamp collecting community, a glorious new career dawned.

Voyage of Captain Bligh
One of Jennifer Toombs’ historical stamp designs, marking the 200th anniversary of the voyage of Captain William Bligh on the HMS Bounty.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that after your second successful Crown Agents’ Omnibus, the 27-country UNESCO issue, you decided to leave EMA to become a free-lance designer. Was that solely to do stamp design work? Or did you also take on other commissions? If so, what?

Toombs: I had always wanted to work free-lance, right from the time I had left art school; but this was impossible — and I had two lots of employment before “The Great Breakthrough.”

After this, I realised that I may be getting quite a lot more work from Harrison and Crown Agents, who, by this time, had added me to their formal list of designers.

Milne: Smart people!

Toombs: Therefore, in response to your earlier question, basically my work was almost solely stamp design — I was too busy to do anything else!

Milne: As I understand it, the popularity of your early stamp designs brought you further work, not just with the Crown Agents, but also the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation (IGPC) and various postal administrations around the globe. Reflecting back to that time, which was the most challenging project you were asked to accomplish in those early years … and why?

Toombs: I think, without a doubt, the great Pitcairn commission. I had been approached by Crown Agents to travel to the Pitcairn Islands to carry out research there for future issues since there was so little material at hand back in England.

I also learned that the Islanders’ main source of income was the sale of postage stamps; and I felt a huge (but very pleasant) responsibility to produce something that would generate enough appeal to collectors worldwide that they would be snapped up and, through that, generate significant cash for the Islanders. I hope that my efforts in the past accomplished this. Note: Many of Ms. Toombs’ Pitcairn stamps are pictured on the Pitcairn Island Philatelic Bureau web site. For example, see her 1997 Christmas issue.

Milne: On a general basis, did most of your clients require submissions in actual stamp size or larger? And with which were you most comfortable?

Toombs: Normally, I am required to produce rough and finished artworks “four times up,” although, if I am pushed for time, “twice up” is acceptable at the rough stage. I always work either “2 up” or even “1.5 up” for IGPC — especially if there is a sheetlet of several designs — and go straight to finished artwork each time.

St Kits 1999 Christmas
One of Jennifer Toombs’ Christmas designs for St. Kitts in 1999.

Milne: Early on, as I recall it, you started producing religious-themed work, like a Malawi Christmas issue and the Methodist Conference set for St. Kitts and Nevis. What made you specially enjoy designing stamps of a religious theme — a theme that I believe has carried through being one of your favourites?

Toombs: I guess this just happened!

I particularly enjoyed designing the Christmas Islands’ two se-tenant sets showing Angels of Peace and Joy. I love drawing angels!

Grenadines 1978 Christmas
Another of Jennifer Toombs’ religious-themed stamp designs, a 1978 Christmas issue for Grenadines of St. Vincent.

Other particularly enjoyable issues that I have produced on a religious theme are: the Christmas Oratorio (J.S. Bach) series for St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the ’80s; sheetlets of carols, mostly for the West Indies, especially “We Three Kings” and “Silent Night” (for which I won the first-ever Stolz Award for the best-voted musical stamp of 1979!); and designs in the style of ancient manuscripts and illumination.

Milne: Are you, on a personal front, what you would call a particularly religious person?

Toombs: I would say I love things spiritual, since, although I was brought up in the Anglican faith, I have a great interest in other religions and especially Truth teachings.

Milne: Around this time in your career you also, as I understand it, started being invited to visit the countries (like St. Kitts, Pitcairn and Jersey) for which you had been approached to design stamps. How helpful did you find this to be in the creation of these countries’ stamps? And, on a personal front again, which of these locations did you most enjoy visiting … and why?

Toombs: Getting these invitations was of great help, as there is nothing quite like going out on location.

Nothing — not even the most sophisticated pictures — can take the place of actually being there to soak up the atmosphere.

All my trips were enjoyable, in such different ways, and one delightful bonus is that I have made firm friends, especially on Pitcairn! The Pitcairners are absolutely delightful, charming folk — so warm and welcoming. In fact, this is basically why I have become a Life Member of the Pitcairn Island Study Group, both in the U.S. and here. For my sins, I happen to be President of the U.K. Chapter!

Milne: I hope the Chapter appreciates the gift they’ve got! In that vein, when you get your first commission for Royal Mail, would you consider the Presidency of the GBCC?!! I could make it happen, you know, Jennifer!

Continued on page 2.

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