In 1976, a wave of creativity was unleashed on the post. Curator Joanna Espin shares the spectacular results and explores the vivid history of Mail Art...

An example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan featuring coloured paper shavings

Mail Art is commonly described as originating in the 1950s with artist Ray Johnson, who posted artworks to his friends and colleagues, and went on to establish the New York Correspondence School. However, The Postal Museum collection contains examples of illustrations passing through the postal system from the Victorian period.

After the 1840 Penny Post revolution, which saw an explosion in the number of letters being sent, printed pictorial writing paper became very popular. Even at this early stage, the public wanted to personalise their letters, and send images along with text to decorate the letter and entertain the receiver. Some took the form of puzzles for the postman to solve.

Curious address showing condensed styled letters

Victorian ‘Curious Address’ (E3234/b)

The largest collection of Mail Art envelopes in The Postal Museum’s collection were made and sent by Frederick Charles Tolhurst. The illustrated Tolhurst envelopes in the collection, over 100 pieces, were sent between 1909 and 1934, to various members of the Tolhurst family, and provide a window into this period of great change.

There are references in the illustrations to the First World War, contemporary fashion, medieval chivalry, and the pastoral ideal. I previously wrote a blog about finding out the identity of the artist behind these envelopes here.

Mail art showing a painter with the address written on his easel

Tolhurst Envelope from 1919 (2014-0038/61)

The latest addition to our Mail Art collection is a group of 65 envelopes, donated to the museum by Jacqui McLennan. In 1976 Jacqui, along with a fellow designer, sent out two envelopes and stamps to artists, designers and friends, asking them to decorate the envelopes and return them in the post. The Mail Art that McLennan received back is a riot of colour and a showcase of different techniques.

A vividly colourful example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan

There are envelopes made out of pieces of fabric that have been stitched together; envelopes featuring illustrations; an envelope that has been ripped into two pieces and stuck back together; there are feathers, photographs, plastic, stickers, embroidery, wine labels, pom poms, magazine cuttings, and cherry-flavoured sweets.

An example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan made of fabric

I was delighted to be able to ask Jacqui some questions about the project and what inspired her:

What initially drew you to Mail Art?

I can’t quite remember, although I do [remember] as a young child being fascinated by stamps, and like many children of the 50s collected them. I have always loved handwriting, and the arrangement of names and addresses within a certain space along with the stamps.

An example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan featuring colourful dots

The delicate onion-skin paper of airmail paper and envelopes fascinated me, with the stripes around their outsides. I found it sad when airmails were no longer used. Sending and receiving letters, I have always loved the thrill of opening up a newsy letter from someone. I became aware of the Mail Art movement in the late 60s, early 70s.

What did you hope to get from the project?

I wasn’t sure when the idea came to me. I knew many artists and designers and thought it would be fascinating how they would decorate their envelopes, and then whether Royal Mail would frank and send them.

An example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan made of fabric and paper

Did the project meet your expectations?

Yes. Everyone seemed to enter into the fun of it. Also, having sent the initial envelope, the participants continued of their own accord to send me more.

An example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan featuring multiple stamps in a pattern

Did you face any challenges?

Not really – I believe most envelopes got through to me okay, although our postman at the time did have to have his uniform dry-cleaned as the paint used by one of my designer friends didn’t dry completely.

An example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan featuring gold thread

Is there a single piece of Mail Art that particularly inspired you?

No – but then I didn’t do the project to be inspired, but as an experiment with friends as to what they would do and to see what Royal Mail would allow through the post.

An example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan featuring assorted images stuck to a label

Jacqui’s enjoyment of sending unusual envelopes through the post – successfully – echoes the sentiment of the Victorian ‘Curious Addresses’ that challenged the Postman to solve a puzzle.

Her project was an exercise in experimentation and curiosity, that drew wonderful creative responses and sparked the imagination of so many people.

An example of mail art from Jacqui McLennan featuring three sketches

The desire to illustrate communication seems to be a continuous impulse. The popularity of Emojis perhaps represents the next generation of combining images with text in order to communicate more effectively and add a flourish to the written word.

Get inspired by our archives and collection with things to make, do, read, watch and listen to during lockdown.

– Joanna Espin, Curator