'The Once & Future King'

Six Alderney Once & Future King postage stamps on a sheet with an illustration of a sword in an anvil.

The Brief

The Once and Future King postage stamp issue, from 2006, celebrates the centenary of the birth of T.H.White. Who lived on Alderney. This is a look at the stamps and my designing and final illustration process.

Sally Diamond, the then head of Guernsey Philatelic Bureau, asked me if I had read the book, which I had. Sally then said that as she had every faith in my designs I had a free hand on the commission. This felt like a real privilege.

I was already familiar with White’s book, but I re-read it quickly for this commission. The book seems to me to focus very much on the personalities involved, rather than on adventures and battles. It seemed like a good idea to try to capture these personalities as portraits. White does not, however, depict the characters in the usual ‘Hollywood’ way, so these paintings refer back to T H White’s original words.

Sheet of notes about the character Merlyn.

Sketching Up

I started work by writing out all of White’s description of the characters that I could find in the Once and Future King. Trying to incorporate them faithfully into my drawings. Initially sketching this up as thumbnails and refine the drawing until I was happy with it.
Early sketches of Merlyn

Merlyn is the character most fully described in the books. He is very intelligent, of course, but also befuddled – not surprisingly, perhaps, as he lives his life going backwards in time!

Peering over his spectacles, he comes across as a schoolmaster, waiting to teach Arthur wisdom and how to be a good king. The bees buzzing around him are a reference to Merlyn’s cottage, full of stuffed and live animals including an ants’ nest and a beehive.

First design drawing for the Merlyn postage stamp.

Artwork

Initially, pencil sketches were submitted my ideas to Guernsey Post for approval. Sally and I talked through these to ensure we were both entirely happy before I commenced the final artwork. There was a requested change of format, from square to portrait shape. Banners were also added across the top of the designs, in a style which is in keeping with the subject matter.

For the final artwork, I used a mixture of airbrush (where the paint is sprayed onto the artboard) and painting, using a combination of acrylic and gouache paints. The original artwork is five times larger than the finished stamp. So painting in the detail is not a problem. The main thing to bear in mind is the area where any lettering and of course the Queen’s head, or in this case the royal cypher, are to be placed. This area needs to be kept unfussy, in order not to clash with or distract from these elements.

34p Alderney postage stamp with the wizard Merlyn looking over his spectacles at you. With bees buzzing around his head.

The Characters

Arthur, I portrayed in his youth, during that period of innocence in which he was successful in drawing the sword from the stone and confirming his destiny as king.

Lancelot was the one that I had to think about most, as his description in the books is very different from the perceived image of him. White did not portray Lancelot in the traditional way as handsome and dashing, but as ugly and insecure. So I decided to show him as a man hiding behind a mask, concealing his face under his helmet and viewing the world through his visor.

First day cover of Alderney's Once & Future King stamps
Sketches for the Once & Future King postage stamps.
My preliminary pencil roughs and changing the original square format to portrait with the final pencil stage for approval.
Pencil designs for the Maugause postage stamp.

Morgause, the beautiful but evil, seductive sorceress, and I wanted her expression and stance to put that across. I put in the background pattern of Celtic spirals to add a sense of the mystical.

I tried to make Mordred look arrogant, cocky and confident, a follower of fashion with a flamboyant and rakish air.

Of the six featured, the character least described in the books is Arthur’s much younger wife Guenever. The only solid reference is to her dark hair and blue eyes, so I decided to paint her simply as radiant, pretty and captivating. Hopefully, her simple innocence contrasts with Morgause’s scheming artfulness.

Presentation Pack and Sheets of Ten

Once & Future King Presentation Pack cover, with White sat looking over Alderney imagining King Arthur.
Two 'Sheets of ten' for the Once & Future King postage stamps.
All six of the postage stamp sheets.

Artwork was also required for the background to the sheets of 10 and for these I drew a place or event that relates specifically to each character. For Arthur, this is being transformed into a wild goose on the salt marshes. Merlyn, it is the Castle of the Forest Sauvage. Guenever, the grounds of Camelot. Lancelot, the battlements from which he dreams of Guenever. Morgause, the Orkney Isles, of which she is queen. Lastly, for Mordred, the final battlefield in his struggle against Arthur.

Stamp Magazine Feb 2006 featuring the Once & Future King postage stamps.

Finally

There was also had an article about this set of stamps published in the Stamp Magazine.

“Fantastic issue, stunning artwork – what more can I say?! “

Sally Diamond – Head of Philatelic Guernsey Post Ltd. 2006

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