First Gambia 1869 Cameo Stamps

It was in 1867 that the Administrator of The Gambia, Rear-Admiral C. E. Patey, considered the time ripe to appeal for special stamps for the Colony. After discussions with his Administration it was decided to write to London.

On December 9th, 1868, Messrs. De La Rue & Co. obtained the contract for the production of the new stamps, and for the sake of economy the plates were to be small, the sheets imperforate and there was to be no watermark.

The result of this economy was a stamp design of simplicity and great beauty - inspired by the gaudy adhesives of Heligoland - the Gambian “Cameo”.

A few years ago “ an impression from a primary die (‘Cameo’ head) ” was discovered and illustrated in the press. It was attributed to Gambia and it was further suggested that it was the work of William Wyon.

This may prove to be correct but there seems little to substantiate these assumptions. The more logical explanation would appear to be that De La Rue took the Heligoland “head” as a sample and that one of their own artists, probably Mr. Warren De La Rue, F.R.S. (engraver to the Board of Inland Revenue) was responsible for the design. The fact must not be overlooked that the Duke of Buckingham had sent samples of Heligoland stamps to the London firm.

The Gambia “Cameos” show several peculiarities which distinguish these issues from other British-made embossed stamps or stationery, one of the most notable being a small dot just inside the top of the chignon.

This dot is quite clear in Die-proofs of the 4d. and 6d., and also on impressions from primary die: head only.

The idea of incorporating this dot of colour into the hair was based on the indentation of the German printed sample adhesives. Although the “dot in hair” is to be found right through the Cameo issues it lacks uniformity as in some instances it is extended in the form of a coloured indentation into the “bun”, whilst in other cases the dot, or indentation, is entirely missing. It is not known whether the variations are caused by wear and tear of the plate, or whether they arise - as some believe - from the comparative “shallowness” of the “downs” at that point.

Whoever designed the “Cameo” stamps it must be admitted that in point of beauty and perfect simplicity they are almost without rival amongst the postage stamps of the world, and are often cited as the nearest approach to the ideal design from the artistic and utilitarian viewpoints. Furthermore, they contain sufficient varieties and shades to add true philatelic interest to what might otherwise become a mere accumulation of handsome miniature works of art.

The first two stamps to be issued by The Gambia were on sale at the Bathurst Post Office in January, 1869, and consisted of two denominations only - 4d. brown and 6d. blue.

Messrs. De La Rue & Co., of London, produced the embossed “Cameo” stamps by a dual process of flat printing and relief embossing, the latter being the second operation.

The modus operandi is that the design is printed from an electrotype of the original steel die; whilst a die, type    high, has been cut in recess of the    part of the design to    be embossed. Mr. John Easton tells    us that this die is then    locked in a    chase and clipped into the bed of a
platen machine as if it were a forme of type. Plaster of Paris is spread on the platen and a sharp impression of the die is transferred on to the plaster. In the case of Gambia, plaster of Paris was not used, as it was found to crack. A special cement was obtained from Birmingham. When this has dried and set it serves as a matrix and fits into the die.

Next a sheet containing the frames, printed by letterpress, with the printed side upwards, was laid on the platen over the cement. The “blind” embossed heads and tablets were pressed into the blank spaces in the frames, and thus completed the stamp.

The sheets are then fed into the machine in the usual way and emerge with the embossing in its correct position “as they have been squeezed between the steel die and the plaster matrix.”

Recently, however, some specialists have drawn attention to a number of flaws which are also embossed, i.e. flaws in the embossing of the same size, shape and position as printing flaws. These embossed flaws arise during the course of the printings and are considered to show a similarity between the printing and the embossing plates which would be impossible if the embossing plate had been separately constructed, which leads to the conclusion that one plate was, in fact, used for both printing and embossing. They believe that the master-die was, as usual, engraved with the design in relief but in place of the usual “downs” there was cut in recess the matter to be embossed, this being complementary to the printed design. The master-die was then reproduced in the usual manner by the electrotype process to form the plate of 15 units in which the “downs” (representing the non-coloured or embossed area of the sheet) took the form of the embossing design from the master-die. Sheets of 15 stamps were surface-printed from this plate; and then the same plate was set up over a hard cement mould which had been taken from the plate and which formed the male counterpart, or matrix. The printed sheets were then inserted between the two and embossed by the two parts being pressed together.

The sheets were of a miniature size and comprised 15 stamps, in three horizontal rows of five, with margins of about 18 mm. all round and a printers’ guide dot opposite stamps numbers 6 and 10.

The paper was unwatermarked and of a medium wove texture and the gum white. Specimens of these stamps are found on “toned” paper with yellowish gum and it seems likely that these variations are due to climatic conditions. At a later period two types of gum were in use.