Have you seen this year's Christmas stamps? We take a look at their 'paper cutting' style and even have a go ourselves...

This year’s Christmas stamps were designed by Manchester-based artist Helen Musselwhite. Working in paper, she creates layers and depth to her artwork, which is becoming widely recognised through exhibitions and commissions for companies such as Royal Mail and Cadbury.

She talks of being inspired by nature, and many of her pieces involve woodland animals, which can be seen in her depiction of the Christmas robin.

Three stamps depicting a Christmas tree, a lantern and a Christmas stocking.

£1.05, £1.33, £1.52, Christmas, 2016

Paper cutting originated in China in the fourth century. Initially the technique was an amusement of the rich but it was later used in folk art amongst the masses. Paper cutting didn’t appear in Europe until the 17th century, at which point it was adopted in numerous styles.

Scherenschnitte, which literally means ‘scissor cutting’, is a style which originated in Switzerland and Germany, where black and white paper is cut into intricate patterns, producing strong contrasts like that of a silhouette. The silhouette was extremely popular in Britain during the 18th century, and was a cheaper way of producing and keeping an image of a loved one than a painted portrait.

Two stamps depicting robins, one on the left produced from paper cutting and on the right an image of a robin in a pillar box.

1st NVI, Christmas, 2016 & 19p, Christmas Robins, 1993

2016 is a secular year for Royal Mail’s Christmas stamps; they don’t focus on a religious theme. This year the stamps look at key Christmas items such as the tree, stockings and robins.

Robins have featured on several Christmas stamps over the years: in 1995, 2001, and alongside Father Christmas in 2012. The background of this year’s stamps is an intricate design of white paper cutting, which really emphasises the colours and shape of the central image, as you can see in the stamp below.

Large image of the second class Christmas stamp with a paper cutting of a snowman surrounded by snowflakes.

2nd NVI Large, Christmas, 2016

At The Postal Museum we are also lucky enough to have a great collection of greetings cards. Many of these are extremely intricate and beautiful pieces of art in their own right, before you even delve into the social history behind them.

In the Valentine card on the right below, you can see the Scherenschnitte technique being used to portray intricate flower detail. Another interesting Valentine card in our collection (left) folds out to reveal hidden messages. While this is not paper cutting, it is another interesting way of working with paper.

Two valentines cards; on the left a folded card depicting a heart and on the right a silhouette card of flowers and bees.

Puzzle Purse Valentine Card c.1970 & Silhouette Valentine Card c.1970

The cards themselves can also take the shape of the object they are portraying. The below image of a New Year card depicts the galleon ship ‘Victoria’ sailing upon the waves. This extremely delicate pop up card has individual sails and flags, many of which were recently conserved to preserve the item.

Pop-up New Year card of a galleon ship called 'Victoria' on the sea.

Pop-up New Year Card of the Galleon Ship ‘Victoria’

You can also see this use of paper cutting and collage in the Miniature Sheet for the 50th Anniversary of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2011. Here the theatre buildings and the characters, played by many recognisable faces, appear free-standing like a stage set.

A miniature sheet consisting of four stamps depicting actors and scenery in a collage motif.

1st NVI, 68p, 76p, £1.00, Miniature Sheet, 50th Anniversary of the Royal Shakespeare Company, 2011

After looking into Helen’s work I was inspired to have a go at paper cutting myself. The below image is my (very basic) attempt at producing a postal-themed paper collage, looking at stamps, envelopes and pillar boxes.

After cutting the individual pieces out, I arranged them on the background and raised the images with 3D foam sticky pads. By layering them up, I could move items like the stamp into the foreground and the envelopes to the back.

A collage of paper cutting depicting stamps, envelopes and a pillar box.

My Postal Paper Cutting

To me, paper cutting is a beautiful art form that lends itself well to highly intricate and detailed designs. Through the work of Helen Musselwhite we can also see the technique’s ability to produce depth and perspective.

It’s great to see paper cutting still appearing on card decoration today, though now it is usually produced by machines rather than the hand crafted cards we’ve seen here. I hope Helen’s new Christmas Stamps and some of our wonderful Valentines cards have encouraged you to maybe have a go at paper cutting yourself.

I hope you’ve had a Merry Christmas, and on behalf of all the team, I’d like to wish you a Happy New Year!

– Georgina Tomlinson, Assistant Curator (Philately)