'Stamp Magazine'February 2006
What makes these stamps remarkable is the quality of their artwork, but also the fact that the characters are not depicted as you might have envisaged them. The King himself looks youthfully naive, less obviously heroic than his outwardly more dashing nemesis Mordred. Merlyn could be a doddery university professor, while Lancelot’s exaggerated eye peers out through his helmet’s visor almost comic-book style. If these portraits are not what you would expect, it’s because they are a very conscious attempt to remain true to the literature which the issue is celebrating. The Once & Future King has spawned two film adaptations: the 1967 musical Camelot (starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave) and the 1963 Disney animation The Sword in the Stone. But these paintings refer back to T H White’s widely admired original words (and even to his name spellings), rather than falling into the trap of depicting their subjects with the cliched eye of a Hollywood movie director. ‘I was already familiar with White’s books,’ says Watton, ’and I re-read them for this commission. They focus very much on the personalities involved, rather than on tournaments and battles, and I wanted to try to capture these personalities in my portraits.’
Watton, who had previously designed various stamps for Alderney, Guernsey and Gibraltar, says he was given a more open brief than is often the case from the issuing administration, Guernsey Post. ‘The Head of the Guernsey Philatelic Bureau, Sally Diamond, allowed me to choose the subject matter for the individual stamp designs.’ ‘I studied White’s descriptions of the characters carefully before I started work, and tried to incorporate them faithfully into my drawings. While reading the books, I found that an image of each character would come into my head, so would sketch this up and refine it until I felt it looked right.’ ‘I chose to portray Arthur 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.’ Sure enough, Arthur is shown gazing at Excalibur with some wonderment, as if the full magnitude of the act has not yet dawned on him. ‘Merlyn is the character most fully described in the books,’ says Watton. ‘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 wordly wise and schoolmasterly, itching to teach Arthur how to be a good king. The bees buzzing around him are a reference to White’s colourful description of his cottage, full of stuffed and live animals including an ants’ nest and a beehive.
The other characters are equally intriguing, and Watton is happy to explain the thinking behind them. ‘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,’ he says. ‘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.’ Ironically, Lancelot’s deep self-loathing, and his exile from Camelot after his illicit affair with Guenever, invite comparisons with the insecurities and reclusiveness of T H White himself. Perhaps the portrait which delves deepest into the soul of its subject is that of Morgause, the beautiful but evil witch who seduced her half-brother Arthur. ‘She is a seductive sorceress, and I wanted her expression and stance to put that across,’ says Watton. ‘The background pattern of Celtic spirals adds a sense of the mystical.’ At first sight, there is something of the all-action hero about the depiction of Mordred, the illegitimate son of Arthur and Morgause who was raised by the latter to defeat Arthur and destroy the idealistic kingdom of Camelot. But look closely and there’s a hint, too, of his cold and calculating edge. ‘I’ve made him look arrogant, cocky and confident, a follower of fashion with a flamboyant and rakish air,’ says Watton. 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,’ admits the designer, ‘so I decided to paint her simply as radiant, pretty and captivating.’ Her simple innocence contrasts sharply with Morgause’s scheming artfulness.
Changing from the original square format to portrait. The final pencil stage before approval to go ahead to artwork.From Sketch To Stamp
Initially Watton submitted pencil sketches of his 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, and we also added banners across the top of the designs, in a style which is in keeping with the subject matter.’ For the final artwork, Watton used a mixture of airbrush (where the paint is sprayed onto the artboard) and painting, using a combination of acrylic and gouache paints. ‘This is quite a time-consuming method, but it gives the realistic results we were looking for.’ For the artist, are there any particular challenges in producing designs for postage stamps? ‘The original artwork is around five times larger than the finished stamp,’ says Watton, ‘so painting in the detail is not a problem.’ ‘However, the main thing to bear in mind is the area where any lettering, the denomination and of course the Queen’s head, or in this case the royal cipher, are to be placed. This area needs to be kept unfussy, in order not to clash with or district from these elements.’ Artwork was also required for the background to the miniature sheets which are being issued, and for these Watton has drawn a place or event that relates specifically to each character. For Arthur, this is being transformed into a wild goose on the salt marshes; for Merlyn, it is the Castle of the Forest Sauvage; for Guenever, the grounds of Camelot; for Lancelot, the battlements from which he dreams of Guenever; for Morgause, the Orkney Isles, of which she is queen; for Mordred, the final battlefield in his struggle against Arthur.
It is clear that the artist has done his research very thoroughly before putting paint to paper. ‘I knew quite a lot about Arthurian legend before I got this commission, having loved reading about it when I was younger,’ says Watton. ‘But I always enjoy doing a bit of extra research on any subject I am painting. It is satisfying to expand my knowledge and learn something new, whatever the theme.’ With his illustrations set to be issued as stamps on February 16th, which one is he most pleased with? ‘It’s very hard to choose a favourite. I enjoyed developing each one. But if I’m cornered to make a choice, I think it would be Merlyn.’