In The Spotlight

GBCC member Tim Burgess interviews Tony Walker
Editor of the Great Britain Philatelic Society Newsletter, Machin Exhibitor, and member of the Royal Mail Stamp Advisory Committee

Tony Walker

Published in the April, 2004 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Burgess: Thank you Mr. Walker, for agreeing to be the subject of this issue’s “In the Spotlight.” We would like to learn about your international award winning Machin exhibit, your role as editor of the Great Britain Philatelic Society Newsletter, and also your contributions as a member of the Royal Mail’s Stamp Advisory Committee. First, however, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Walker: I had an uncle who was a keen collector, and he introduced me to stamps at the age of six. I maintained a schoolboy interest for a few years until other distractions intervened, not least a University education with a BSc degree in Botanical Science, followed by a Postgrad. degree in Landscape Architecture, which made use of my artistic talents inherited from my father.

I returned to the hobby in 1967, but the demands of the environmental consultancy I established in 1970 took up virtually all of my time, especially as we began to work in Europe and the Middle East. Incidentally in passing, I recall my firm was the first ever non-American recipient of a landscape restoration award from the Associated Landscape Contractors of America.

With the increasing use of computers in design work, for which I had no enthusiasm, I took the opportunity to stand down from the practice in 2001 at the age of 60, and I am pleased to say it continues in my name, but now with computer wizards at the helm.

I had anticipated being able to spend more time on my non-work interests, but a new venture with my eldest son, in garden design and construction, has put paid to that, but at least I spend most of my time inside in the warm; Mark has to build them outside. I have however been able to take on interesting philatelic work, such as the Newsletter and the SAC, and write up my Machin material. I am slowly turning an accumulation of British WWI naval mail into a collection, but at the present rate of progress it will take another decade or more. However as my mother celebrates the start of her 98th year soon, maybe I’ll make it!

Essays of predecimal Machins
This 1966 essay has the final version of the Machin portrait but shows the value to the right. To see Walker’s exhibit page that includes this essay, click here.

Burgess: Perhaps we could start with the Machins? Why Machins?

Walker: This interest came about in a very simple way. I completed my University education within a week or two of the new Machin £sd definitives being put on sale in 1967. With money in my pocket from a first real job, I tackled the subject with enthusiasm that remains unabated.

Burgess: Historically, many areas of interest have had to struggle to achieve respectability in the frames of philately. Subjects such as revenues, thematics, and first day covers received little recognition. Now in the United States, for example, a broader range of subjects has found acceptability. What has been your experience with modern stamps in the U.K.?

Walker: Very similar in fact. I soon became aware back in the 1970’s and 80’s of the wide credibility gap between the traditional and established collectors of the line-engraved [period], and the “modern” collector of say George VI or WWII onwards. The latter were definitely second class citizens. This served to sustain my enthusiasm for the £sd Machins and to take every opportunity to display and exhibit.

Burgess: When did you first exhibit? How was your first attempt at exhibiting received and what did you learn from your first experience? What award levels did you achieve in your beginning years?

Walker: I first exhibited around 1970, and won an award in 1976 in a regional event in the north of England. I have a note the entry was “Machin Perforation Anomalies.” I would probably be mightily embarrassed by it now! However my first attempt at Stampex, the UK’s National Exhibition, was in 1982, and merited a Bronze/Silver award. At the critique afterwards the very eminent judge said, “Yes, I remember this one, I now know the difference between the Wildings and these Machins.” I thought that summed up the prevalent attitudes rather neatly.

I obtained a Small Silver Gilt medal at Stampex in 1988 after competing each year in between. I did not enter Stampex again until 2003, concentrating mainly on events outside the U.K.

Tete-beche pair of Machins
This graphically-cropped tête-bêche pair of Machins is part of a block of 24. To see Walker’s exhibit page that includes that block, click here.

Burgess: How do you classify your exhibit, and how do you tackle the subject?

Walker: The exhibit conforms to the Traditional Class in most competitions. The exhibit examines the technical aspects of the £sd Machin definitives (1967-1971) and how these changed during the 54 months to overcome various problems. Design modifications brought in three Head Types (A, B and C); there were two gums (Gum Arabic and PVA [polyvinyl alcohol]); several different perforators and perforation configurations in booklets and sheets; phosphor band changes to keep up with rising postal charges; two different phosphor screens and two changes of colour.

All these were part of the ongoing technical improvement process, and the stamps were all normal, not errors or printer’s waste, as detractors sometimes claimed. In my view these changes can compare comfortably and equally with the plate and engraving refinements found in the earlier issues.

Burgess: How difficult is it to obtain stamp production material?

Walker: I was often criticised for my lack of pre-issue, or stamp production material as you say, in my exhibit. Material such as essays, trials, proofs etc. is relatively easily come by in the early line engraved issues, as the judges would know. But in the Machins they are as rare as hen’s teeth, as any modern collector will tell you, but which few judges until recently would know.

Burgess: Your Machin exhibit won a Large Vermeil at Stamp Show 2000 and a Gold medal at Amsterdam in 2002 and Autumn Stampex in 2003. What improvements were made to bring the exhibit up to a gold level?

Walker: I’m fairly certain my Large Vermeil at Stamp Show 2000 was an award for perseverance as much as anything else! It was commented to me, without being patronising, that a modern entry would not reach higher and that I had done extremely well.

I was able to add further pre-issue material and other items, and up to that point all my writing up was by hand, which being a designer by profession posed no problem. I liked the individuality of the presentation. However I had noticed in the Traditional Class at Philexfrance in 1999, of the 70 or so entries only 3 or 4 were handwritten.

Following advice from more informed judges, I completely re-wrote the collection on computer, and whilst I felt this was something of a capitulation on my part, there was a sense of inevitability about it. Anyway it has been awarded two Gold medals since, as you mention.

Burgess: With these Gold medals have you made your point to the philatelic community that Machins belong in the canon of exhibition, or is there still work to do?

Walker: Can I take this opportunity for a bit of plain speaking?

Unfortunately few modern collectors accompanied me on this campaign, and it was a lonely furrow, which I greatly enjoyed ploughing I might add! There is still much work to do, and regrettably in the U.K. the specialist QEII Machin societies are very introverted, and they turn their backs on everyone else, often fighting amongst themselves.

This is extremely unfortunate and does nothing to sustain and strengthen the hobby in the U.K. I hope it is different in the States. Now that Machins have achieved international gold medal recognition, there is no justification for this selfish attitude, originating perhaps from the earlier discriminatory atmosphere projected by the “Establishment.”

Despite this, modern stamps, and Machins in particular, are penetrating the defences of the line-engraved. A significant number of serious GB collectors now have Machin collections, be it postal history, booklets, stamps or whatever. So, yes, I think we have a seat at the top table!

Burgess: Has your work on the exhibit given you some insights into the development of the Machin series that are not well known?

Scarce Machin coil leader
There are fewer than 10 of these coil leaders known with Machins having Head B. To see Walker’s exhibit page that includes this leader, click here.

Walker: That’s a difficult question to answer. Certainly my research (still ongoing) into the colour trials commissioned by the Post Office in the late 1960’s as a prelude to the decimal stamps proposed for 1971 has been illuminating and fascinating. But can I answer this question with a summary of the characteristics which make this series so interesting? I touched on it in answer to an earlier question.

The technical changes I referred to earlier can give rise to exceptional but “normal” rarities. For instance a particular value may be known with both Head Type A and Head Type B, and each of these with either gum arabic or PVA gum. On these four combinations can be superimposed different phosphor band configurations, and on top of that a 150 or 250 phosphor screen, giving up to sixteen quite distinct stamps in the one value. By the time you get to the end of these lines you can have a stamp of which only a handful exist, an example being the 6d ‘J’ coil for instance, Head Type B, PVA gum, two phosphor bands with the 250 phosphor screen.

Burgess: Modern stamps have appeared more frequently on the cover and in the contents of the Great Britain Philatelic Society’s GB Journal and Newsletter. Did you play a role in this?

Walker: Modern stamps and philately now have a strong and numerically significant following. This has been acknowledged in recent years in the GB Journal, edited by Mike Jackson, with the encouragement of recent presidents who have modern collections, and to reflect the interests of members. As for the Newsletter, I do not think I would have been invited to be editor back in 1999 if modern material had not become respectable.

Burgess: Does the collection and exhibition of Machins have a future?

Walker: Most certainly. The development of the decimal Machin series since 1971 has given enormous opportunity for collectors at all levels. There is great potential for more quality exhibiting which I hope we will soon see.

Burgess: Do you have further plans to explore Machins as an exhibitor?

Walker: I have more work to do on the colour trials. I also wish to write up the remainder of my pre-decimal material, which is quite substantial. I do not think I can take the exhibit much further, but I would like to show it occasionally abroad, the USA perhaps, and encourage the modern collector with society talks and displays.

Burgess: When did you become a member of the Stamp Advisory Committee (SAC)? How did your membership come about?

Walker: I joined the SAC at the end of 2001, following an informal approach and a subsequent interview. As there was only one philatelist on the SAC at that time, this was a welcome move, and my interest in modern stamps and Newsletter efforts probably put me in the frame.

Burgess: Can you share some of your experiences at SAC with GBCC members? What are the goals of the committee in regards to the selection of stamp subject matter and design?

Walker: Anyone can write in to Royal Mail with a suggestion for a commemorative stamp, and many individuals and groups do just that. However the lead in time is usually around three years, so you have to think well ahead.

Burgess: How many persons are on the committee? Who are they?

Walker: Around 12 to 15. There are several eminent designers, being directors and principals in their companies; a leading professor of Art and Design; a representative from the Department of Trade and another for ethnic communities. There is an expert on corporate branding and another on corporate identity. We have an entrepreneur and a well known broadcaster and former Businesswoman of the Year. We have an expert from the printing industry, and recently the past Chairman of Royal Mail has joined us after his retirement.

We sit in a voluntary capacity and meet every six weeks in London.

Miscut Machin booklet pane
This miscut booklet pane shows the gutter and part of the adjacent tête-bêche pane. To see Walker’s exhibit page that includes this pane, click here.

Burgess: Collectors have expressed some concern about the increasing size of stamp sets, the rising cost of the high values, and overall number of stamps produced each year. Have these concerns reached the ears of the SAC?

Walker: Yes, and they often enter into discussions. However there is enormous pressure from the sales and marketing arms of Royal Mail to maintain retail levels, and Royal Mail is after all a commercial business, with currently severe financial problems and facing fierce competition. As a philatelist I sympathise with the collectors, and I genuinely believe the SAC has exerted some influence on the quantity of stamps issued, but there is a way to go.

As to the cost of high values, this reflects the increasing costs of the postal services.

Burgess: Which stamps have created the most controversy at the SAC?

Walker: When you ask me all these questions I realise it would take more than one interview to answer them adequately! To a designer, indifference to his/her work by the public is the most distressing. At least if you hate a stamp design it has got through to you, and almost certainly there will be many who hold a contrary opinion.

Probably our most difficulty arises with the Christmas issues. Firstly, they come up every year, and it is not easy to be different and original, year on year. One has to avoid being different for the sake of it. Also the representation of other faiths has to be considered, so should the Christmas stamps be secular or non-secular? This is an emotive subject as you can imagine.

Recently, to seek fresh ideas, a number of graphic firms were invited to submit their ideas for Christmas stamps to the SAC, without any prescriptive brief. At the following meeting we had nearly 400 separate images to look at, in addition to the rest of the agenda. We work hard!

Burgess: What do you think of some of the more gimmicky ideas that have surfaced such as scented stamps?

Walker: You have declared your hand with this question. You could have replaced “more gimmicky” with “technical advances” could you not?

Philatelists tend not to like change, after all we spend most of our time collecting backwards. I personally consider these ideas are good; they may appear only once, and I may not like all of them, but for those I dislike there will be plenty who approve.

Fun Fruit n Veg
The Fun Fruit ’n Veg issue consists of 10 self-adhesive stamps, each showing a large individual fruit or vegetable. These are at the top. Also included are a variety of labels that can be used to make a face or character out of each fruit or vegetable. An example using the lemon is shown at lower right.

The Fun Fruit ’n Veg issue is a case in point. The potential of this issue to involve children was enormous, but it was not adequately promoted or explained, and many people including philatelists did not appreciate the overall concept. We are on a learning curve.

Burgess: Which country do you think issues the most attractive stamp designs and highest quality of printing?

Walker: By coincidence, late last year (2003), the annual stamp programmes from Canada, USA, New Zealand, France and Sweden for the year 2002, and for the UK for 2002 – 2004 were displayed at an SAC meeting, to assess how we compared with our contemporaries. I do not feel it is appropriate (or sensible!) to comment further, other than to say the U.K. designs and printing quality seemed to hold their own in this exercise.

Burgess: I tend to agree with the comments of Janet Klug, a GBCCer and current President of the American Philatelic Society that, “the design work of British stamps to be the best the world has to offer” and the “printing done in Britain is also superior to what is done in the U.S.”

Walker: I am delighted Janet has expressed such an opinion. It would be churlish of me to disagree!

Burgess: Would you agree British definitive designs have been successively simplified since King Edward VIII, and can it go further? What is the public’s view of Machins?

Walker: The Victorian era was known for design elaboration in many areas, but you over-simplify matters. The Edward VIII stamps were produced very quickly, and also the special or commemorative stamps came along in George VI’s reign and took on more complex designs. The definitives perhaps are more appropriate in a simpler format that provides visual continuity. By and large, the Machins remain popular and are widely recognised as being of a classical but modern design.

Burgess: Why did you choose to become editor of the Great Britain Philatelic Society Newsletter? Since you became editor of the GBPS Newsletter it has undergone a phenomenal transformation in both content and volume. It is hard to believe you have had no previous editorial experience.

Walker: I have always enjoyed writing, and maintain a number of correspondences.

I saw the Newsletter as a challenge, to increase its remit and content, and to target those collectors to whom the specialised and more advanced content of the GB Journal may not be so relevant. For many, who for physical, geographical and other reasons are unable to attend meetings or exhibitions, it is the main link to the Society, so photographs and illustrations become extremely important.

I particularly wanted to develop a relaxed publication where members, irrespective of their philatelic accomplishments, did not feel inhibited to contribute to the Newsletter. Whilst your question is most flattering, the editor can only work with the material he receives, and I am immensely indebted to our members for their continuing support, yourself included. I do receive many encouraging comments from members who obviously enjoy the read, and the increased number of pages reflects this.

Burgess: In your first issue of the Newsletter, you indicated that “it is not easy to strike a balance with the GBJ (GB Journal), which is the serious publication, and the Newsletter which…should be read rather than studied.” Do you feel you have been able to maintain this balance? Do you foresee any future changes in the form or function of the Newsletter?

Walker: Some members have expressed concern that the Newsletter is no longer something to be read and then put in the bin, which I take as a compliment. I do not feel I have encroached on the GB Journal, but rather opened up a much wider range of opportunity for members to participate. Mike Jackson and I remain on extremely good terms. I would like to see some colour in the Newsletter, but I think that will have to wait. I am always looking for new ideas, and this interview has set me thinking.

Burgess: As a member from abroad I have always felt that the Newsletter has kept me in touch with the happenings of the Society and has made me feel a little less remote from what was happening amongst the membership. What is your philosophy in regards to the Newsletter’s social function and what role if any do you play in reaching out to the more distant membership? {I personally feel your editorials lend a friendly and welcoming touch to the Newsletter — which seems to draw reader response!}

Walker: Thank you again for your question. I do try to encourage any kind of contribution through individual contact. It is absolutely essential for members to realise they do not have to be working on the edges of philatelic research to appear in the Newsletter. I greatly enjoy the occasional letter from a member just musing about this and that — with which we can all identify.

Burgess: Thank you once again for this opportunity to spend time with the Great Britain Collectors Club membership and sharing some of your observations with us!

Walker: I am most flattered that you consider me to be of sufficient interest to be put in the spotlight. Thank you for the invitation to participate, and may I wish all your members and yourself many years of philatelic enjoyment.