A Life and Love on Paper
A box in our collection set Curator Joanna on the trail of a moving story of romance, artistry and even secret messages...
For this blog, I researched the people behind a group of 44 illustrated cards and postcards sent between 1907 and 1911, and uncovered a poignant love story. Since we have no record of the provenance of the postcards, I set out to discover who made them and who received them.
Each card has a unique, colourful illustration by ‘Harry’. Six of Harry’s cards were sent at Christmas. They may have been sent in an envelope or presented in person, as they don’t bear a stamp or address.
One card is a triptych of festive images: ‘Christmas… Snow’ features an illustration of a snow ball fight, ‘Christmas… dough’ is accompanied by mince pies and a flaming Christmas pudding, and ‘Christmas woe’ is depicted by an image of over-indulgence, which many will be familiar with!
We have 33 cards sent by Harry to a woman called Olive. None of these cards were sent at Christmas, but at regular intervals between 1907 and 1911. The messages cover a variety of topics including cycling, theatre, exams, and get-togethers.
The illustrations on the front of the cards are charming. One sent on 30 March 1907 appears to be a self-portrait of Harry, written and sketched while on the bike ride depicted in the scene.
The postcards are a window into Harry and Olive’s lives, but often provide infuriating snatches of stories we will never fully understand. There are in-jokes, such as ‘I don’t know whether you considered you’ve had too many “nights off” this week, – but I’m willing’, and unexplained anecdotes like ‘trust your wounded face is healing better rapidly’.
Harry’s illustrations often link to his message, as with a postcard sent to Olive in August 1911.
Harry wrote: ‘to land hurrah! only a few hours now! Shall not leave the quay until I meet you’, before intriguingly adding: ‘don’t let us have the Brighton business over again!’. The accompanying illustration, entitled ‘The Yachting Girl’ depicts a woman in a sailor outfit. Could this be Olive?
Another card to Olive features her name surrounded by the words ‘LOVE’, ‘MODESTY, ‘PURITY’, ‘GENTLENESS’, ‘FAITHFULNESS’ and ‘SWEETNESS’. It’s a very affectionate postcard, and Harry apologises for this public display: ‘I hope you won’t think this one is another big advertisement of yourself to send so publicly! I haven’t an envelope at hand that will fit or I would have sent it under cover’.
This demonstrates that postcards were not a private communication; they could be read by the Postman or family who reached the letterbox first.
To keep part of their messages secret, some Victorians developed ‘the Language of Stamps’, angling stamps in different locations to convey hidden meaning. The stamps on all but one of Olive’s postcards tilt forwards which, depending on which Language of Stamps code you refer to, means ‘I am faithful to you’.
This 1940 film shows how the popularity of the Language of Stamps continued into the 20th century:
Video on the ‘Language of Stamps’ by British Pathé
As the narrator says, with letters costing twopence halfpenny each, ‘we’ve got to make the most of each one’.
Not only could the code be used for ‘the lingo of love’: ‘the tender passion bursts into flame again’ with an upside down stamp, but if you want to let someone know ‘you hate him, curse him, you can tell him like this, darn him!’ and send a sideways stamp. You can read more about these secret codes here.
The only information we had about Olive was her first name and, as she received postcards, her address. I found her on the 1911 census, and so uncovered her approximate year of birth: 1887, and her occupation: Assistant Teacher.
In 1911 Olive Durst was 24, living with her widowed mother, two brothers and a sister in Battersea. With this extra information I located her marriage certificate, and learned that in 1914 she wed Henry George Daniels, a Clerk. Perhaps this Henry was our illustrator Harry?
The 1911 census lists a Henry George Daniels’ address as 23b Theatre Street, Battersea: the address on the postcards. Success!
Though Harry and Olive lived just a 15-minute walk apart, Harry sent frequent messages and illustrations. As he said in 1907:
It wasn’t, of course, at all likely that I could remain quiet for a week (nearly) out of hearing & (worse!) out of sight of you… this all too brief p.c. is a poor remedy but must, I suppose, suffice.
The tale ends with a tragic twist: Harry was killed in action in France in 1917, just three years after his wedding to Olive.
But the cards from their friendship and courtship remain: a tender, funny and poignant insight into a relationship cut short by the First World War. Harry’s postcards are a vibrant testimony to his humour, talent and life.
– Joanna Espin, Curator