- GB blue embossed stamp used on vellum
£1/15/- die E, Barber # 1, 1817-
It's not surprising that they are mostly overlooked, as they are extremely small, just a few millimetres across, but when you get in close they reveal a wealth of detail and beauty.
I now often buy vellum documents and embossed stamps purely for the escutcheons, if they look particularly interesting. Of course, anyone who collects embossed stamps is by default collecting escutcheons too, but I'm hoping that sharing some of my collection here will encourage the study and appreciation of these gems hidden in plain sight!
As well as the aesthetic value of many of the escutcheons, another reason to take a closer look at them is that they carry within them information which can't be found anywhere else. The original dies used to make the stamps are presumably mostly lost or destroyed; the stamp retains a lot of the impression from the embossing process but much of it is lost, as the soft paper doesn't have the "resolution" to faithfully record the mark of the metal die. However, the escutcheon does. The tin and lead alloy records the impression of the die in extreme detail, so they are like tiny "time machines" preserving the art on the particular part of the die which made the impression.
A little history for anyone not familiar with the stamps and cypher labels:
Stamp Duty on all legal documents was introduced by royal decree in Britain in 1694 by King William III and Queen Mary II. Originally the stamp was embossed directly onto the documents but it was quickly realised that the contraction and expansion of vellum or parchment caused the impression to disappear, so this method was replaced by a (usually) blue base paper glued onto the surface. These semi-adhesive stamps invited fraud, as they could be removed relatively easily, and moved to another document.
In 1701 a solution was found: the stamp was glued onto the document as before, then a thin strip of metal, the escutcheon, was passed through 2 slits cut into the document and the stamp, and secured at the back using a further stamp, the cypher label, which was then fixed in place over the ends of the strip using hot fish glue. The stamp, and the exposed section of the metal strip, was then embossed using a die, and fraud became virtually impossible. This highly effective security device was used continuously from 1701 to 1922.
(Paraphrased from the introduction of the book by William A. Barber "The Royal Cypher Labels of Great Britain, Ireland & the Colonies" 1988)
This £1 15 Shillings stamp - die E - was introduced in 1817
The royal cypher label on the back is number 330 from a 3rd recut plate from the reign of George III. These labels were produced using large copper plates, with hundreds of labels on each plate, and each stamp position is numbered. Copper is a soft metal, which wore down with use over the years, and the plates needed to be periodically recut. The H shaped mark across the '0' identifies this as the 3rd recut, and this restricts the possible date range for the stamp to between 1819 and 1828.
This escutcheon measures 7.3mm x 6.3mm. A good 1:1 Macro lens on my Nikon DSLR shows a lot of the detail:
However to show escutcheons in all their glory you need to get closer...
I tried a 2X converter on the lens but it was still not good enough, so I had to dust off the microscope and attach the Nikon directly to it, removing the camera lens and adding a 4X Objective:
This presents quite a few technical challenges, including getting enough light onto the stamp and fitting the escutcheon within the very small field of view. This required taking 3 sets of shots and stitching them together in the free software ICE.
But there's a far bigger problem trying to photograph though a microscope, and that is that the depth of field becomes very thin indeed. The embossed surface of the escutcheon is less than a millimetre thick , but the focal plane through the microscope can be as little as 1/100th of a millimetre.
The solution is to take many dozens of images, all at a slightly different focus point. Then the images can be stacked into a single image using the superb piece of software Zerene Stacker.
Here's the final image, which is actually a composite of over 100 images:
The image is upside because I wanted to see how the die might have looked. The human brain interprets an object illuminated from above as being convex, as that's how the sun illuminates a convex object. If you turn the image so that the illumination appears at the bottom, the brain interprets the object as concave. Here is the image rotated 180 degrees, with no other tricks or manipulations. The impression appears inverted although it's exactly the same image!
And here's a close crop of the 3 berries. These berries are each 1mm in diameter. It's clear that a lot of the detail has been lost in the embossed paper, but is retained in the metal.
There are huge numbers of different dies, with a wide variety of images on them, including plants, flowers, unicorns, lions, crowns, shields and much more. Since the escutcheon is fixed in place before the embossing process, there is a fair degree of randomness as to which part of the die is recorded which leads to a huge variety of different images, and partial images, appearing on these escutcheons. I'll post more here soon.