The first pictorial definitive series from a major British colony, issued by New Zealand in 1898, had two different printers, three different platemakers and four different papers, not to mention famous errors and perforation varieties. Was this the ultimate turn-of-the-century collectable?

In New Zealand, as elsewhere in the British Empire in the 19th century, the monarch’s head was the basis of most stamp designs. So the first pictorial definitive series from one of the major colonies, issued in 1898, was always sure to grab the public’s attention.

But there were additional reasons for the immense contemporary and subsequent interest in this issue.

It stemmed partly from the public design competition launched in 1895, offering cash prizes, which was intrinsically linked to the government policy of encouraging new settlers and promoting tourism.

It was augmented by the decision to switch production of the stamps from London to Wellington, where local efforts to print and perforate these designs satisfactorily introduced considerable complexity to the series.

And finally, of course, the stamps’ superb engraved views of New Zealand’s flora, fauna and scenery not only captured the Victorian imagination but remain popular with thematic collectors today.

Above: The first printing of New Zealand’s 1898 pictorial definitive series, by Waterlow in London, included stamps in no fewer than five different formats. Illustrated here (in correct proportion to show the differences) are the ½d purple-brown, 5d sepia, 6d green, 2s grey-green and 5s vermilion.

Setting the scene

Issued on April 5, 1898, the series initially comprised 13 values from ½d to 5s, with 13 designs by different artists in a variety of formats.

Mountains and water were the most popular subjects among the competition winners, with the ½d purple-brown and the 5s vermilion depicting contrasting views of Mount Cook, the 1d blue and yellow-brown showing Lake Taupo and Mount Ruapehu, the 2d lake illustrating Pembroke Peak and Milford Sound, the 2½d blue showing Lake Wakatipu and Mount Earnslaw, the 5d sepia displaying Otira Gorge and (in an unusual inset) Mount Ruapehu, and the 2s grey-green offering another view of Milford Sound.

Above: The stamps were the result of a public design competition launched in 1895, and hundreds of unadopted essays have come onto the collectors’ market in recent years.

The 4d bright rose and 9d purple illustrated the white terrace and the pink terrace respectively on the shores of Lake Rotomahana, tourist attractions which had been buried by a volcanic eruption in 1886.

Indigenous birds decorated three stamps, in the shape of the huia on the 3d yellow-brown, the kiwi on the 6d green, and the kea and kaka on the 1s vermilion.

And the oddity of the series was the 8d indigo, which featured a Maori war canoe and an imperial crown within the loops of a figure of eight.

It is difficult to see how all these values correlated with the postage rates of the day, which suggests that she scale and quality of the issue owed as much to political pressure as it did to postal necessity. But it would remain current for a decade, undergoing four distinct phases of production.

London printing

The first phase is known as the London printing, because both the plates and the stamps made from them were produced in the United Kingdom by Waterlow & Sons before being shipped to New Zealand.

These are widely agreed to be among the finest recess printings made in this period. The engravers made a superb job of the dies, which were then transferred to the plate by a transfer roller, and the paper used, which had no specific name and no watermark, was ideally suited for the reproduction of detailed engravings.

Above: Advertising cover of October 1898 using two of the 2d pictorials along with existing ‘Second Sideface’ definitives. The new stamps were so popular thatthe postal authorities restricted supplies and urged postmasters to use up stocks of the preceding issue.

Above: Registered cover posted to Venezuela on August 5, 1903, bearing three different pictorials for a total of 1s 3½d in postage (four times 2½d, plus 3d for registration and 2½d for the advice of receipt service), with an AR rectangular handstamp in green.

On the other hand, there were several curious features of the London printing, which fuelled the colony’s determination to produce subsequent printings locally.

One was the strange variety of stamp formats. There were at least five distinctly different shapes (in marked contrast to the standard size and double size specifications laid down for the design competition), which inevitably created watermark and perforating challenges.

Another unnecessary difficulty was added by the surprising decision to make one value, the 1d, a two-colour design. One of the stamps which would be required in the largest numbers thus required two plates, and two runs through the printing press with careful registration.

Finally, there was a spelling error, with the name Wakatipu  in two interesting paper varieties.

Above: The spelling error on the 2½d value, where ‘Wakatipu’ was mistakenly engraved as ‘Wakitipu’, was quickly corrected.

In July 1902, the 6d was printed on a distinctive paper known as Lisbon Superfine, after the words which appear once on each sheet as a watermark; as most stamps in each sheet have no watermark, they are easily confused with stamps on unwatermarked Pirie paper, particularly as both are perforated 11.

In December 1902, the 2s appeared on laid paper, with its distinctive vertical ribbing.