19 mei 2024

Underwater nature

Europe’s cooperating postal companies have been issuing stamps with a common theme for more than 65 years. A design competition has been associated with this issue since 2002: the EUROPA stamp best design competition. The competition is organised by PostEurop, the organisation in which all European national postal operators cooperate. The theme for the common European stamp issue for 2024 is ‘Underwater fauna & flora’. Following this theme, PostNL will issue the Underwater Nature stamp sheet on 13 May 2024. The stamps bear denomination ‘international 1’ for post weighing up to 20 grams with an international destination. A sheet of 6 stamps costs €9.90. The theme ‘Underwater fauna & flora’ was originally slated for 2023 but was pushed back because PostEurop chose the theme ‘Peace, the Highest Value of Humanity’ that year due to the war in Ukraine.

The Underwater Nature stamps depict a chub (fish) and a water gentian (plant). The chub (Rhodeus amarus) is a small plant-loving fish with a highly built, laterally flattened body. The males have a purplish-red glow in the spawning season. For reproduction, the chub seeks out a live freshwater mussel and lures a fertile female to it. She lays her eggs in the gill cavity of the mussel, after which the male releases his roe at the inlet opening. The Dutch name for the chub (bittervoorn) comes from the bitter taste of its flesh, probably a repellent against predatory fish.

Along the banks of old estuaries, ponds and larger bodies of water, you often see a wide fringe of smaller floating leaves with the golden yellow flowers of the water gentian (Nymphoides peitata) between them in the summer months. Although you will hardly notice it, the flower only blooms for a day. Another flower then emerges from the spout, while the spent flower disappears underwater. The Latin name of the water gentian refers to the nymph, a demi-goddess of the rivers, as an indication of the beauty of the plant and its location.

The chub and water gentian are both common representatives of underwater nature in the Netherlands. Our country has a lot of underwater nature as almost one-fifth (19%) of the Netherlands’ total surface area is water. That the Netherlands is a water country is evidenced by the 330,000 kilometres of locks used to regulate the water level in our country. In Dutch waters, we find a great diversity of plants and animals adapted to life underwater. Aquatic plants are an important habitat and refuge for aquatic animals such as fish, crustaceans and molluscs, which in turn are food sources for migratory birds and waterfowl, for example. To conserve these ecosystems, nature management organisations and governments work together to protect and enhance underwater nature. According to research from 2022 by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), only 1% of Dutch surface water would currently meet all European standards, partly due to the large amounts of phosphate and nitrogen in the water.

The Underwater Nature stamp sheet has 6 identical stamps with the denomination ‘international 1’ for mail with an international destination. Each stamp features illustrations of the chub, freshwater mussel and water gentian, as representatives of Dutch underwater nature. The purple-red-coloured chub male is featured in the centre of the stamp, swimming under the leaves of the water gentian. This bright green leaf extends to the stamp above it and the top sheet border. The stem of the water gentian passes behind the chub. On the left of the stamp is a freshwater mussel, a shellfish with a crucial role in the chub’s reproductive cycle. The drawing of the mussel continues on the left and right tabs of the sheet. In the upper right of the stamp, A silver-bellied chub female is depicted in the distance. A wavy line pattern can be seen in the background of the stamp to symbolise the flow of water. The line pattern continues across the drawing of the chub female. On the tabs next to the stamps, where the Priority logo appears, the continuous mussel drawing is combined with the stems and leaf of the water gentian. On the sheet border, the grey-blue background tone continues with a colour gradient. Enlarged drawings of bright green water gentian leaves with stem are depicted on the bottom of the sheet border.

The font used is Puffin Display Soft (2008-2021) by Eindhoven-based Pieter van Rosmalen, a font he designed for Bold Monday.

Stamps and underwater nature – a familiar combination for graphic designer Bart de Haas from The Hague. For example, he previously designed the Underwater World stamp series, a series of 25 stamp sheets with 75 different stamps issued by PostNL over the course of 3 years. De Haas: ‘For these new stamps, I chose a fish that was also featured in this earlier series: the chub. But in a very different way than previously, though. Not in a photo, but as an illustration. Moreover, the series consisted of personal stamps, while the Underwater Nature stamp sheet is part of the regular issue programme. First, I revisited the visual culture surrounding underwater life. I looked at old school charts by M.A. Koekkoek, for example, illustrations by biologists and also stamps from home and abroad regarding the subject. Among other things, this put me on the trail of the line pattern in the background and the way the chub is depicted as a solitary protagonist.’

A special story
The chub assumes the lead role on the Underwater Nature stamps, with important supporting roles for the mussel and the water gentian in the background. ‘In the beginning, the division of roles was different,’ says De Haas. ‘My first thought was even to use a three-spined stickleback. A common fish in Dutch waters and also very colourful when it spawns. But I preferred an equally common fish with a special story. And that is the chub, especially when it comes to reproduction. The freshwater mussel plays an essential role in this, as the chub engages this shellfish as a nursery to protect its offspring. The purple-red colour – which appears only in the male during the spawning season – is also very special. Just like that red eye. Normally, the chub’s flanks are silvery, with a blue-green longitudinal stripe. Only males take on a purplish-red glow during spawning; females keep the same colour.’

Winding stem
Besides the chub and the mussel, De Haas depicted the water gentian on the stamps. ‘The theme of PostEurop this year was both flora and fauna underwater. The chub represents the animals, the water gentian the plants. There is also a special story to tell about the water gentian, which is as common as the chub and freshwater mussel. Namely, that each flower of this plant blooms for a day and then is replaced by a new flower every day, something which is almost invisible to our eyes. The stamps depict only the leaf of the water gentian, with its winding stem. Not the flower itself, as it sticks out above the water and the subject is, after all, underwater nature. The chub, freshwater mussel and water gentian all occur in freshwater, including in each other’s vicinity. For example, at the shores of a large lake like the ones on the stamps.’

In the style of Escher
The border of the stamp sheet features a short text about the special story of the chub and that of the water gentian. De Haas: ‘By the way, before I worked out the combination of chub, freshwater mussel and water gentian, I had another idea. In my first sketches, a newt figures as the antithesis of the chub in an illustration in the style of Escher. But I abandoned that idea, since a solitary animal as the protagonist works best on a stamp anyway. But you may still see Escher’s vibe in the illustration. All the constructed features are exactly in place.’

Colour gradient
In depicting the chub on the stamp, De Haas chose the classic isolated image of a fish detached from its background. ‘Enhanced in this case by the white contour line around the fish. On the other hand, it should continue to have something natural, so you need to show the surroundings. On the stamp, the underwater world is highlighted by the colour gradient from top right to bottom left, clearly showing the sun’s location. The viewer’s point of view also becomes clear as you look against the underside of the water gentian leaf. So from below the water surface. The striking stems of the water gentian run in a nice S-shape. That reminds me of Art Nouveau, an important art movement of the early last century.’

Reflection and correspondence
The winding of the female chub runs with the circling line pattern in the grey-blue water. That pattern also runs across the drawing of the female. De Haas: ‘The notch in the leaf of the water gentian in turn mirrors the notch in the tail of the chub. The oval shapes of the mussel and the water gentian leaf also correspond to each other. I first sketched the illustration in pencil, then worked it out in ink, then transferred it to the computer and edited it further. To be on the safe side, I had an expert from RAVON watch. This conservation organisation has extensive knowledge about native reptiles, amphibians and fish. He gave me some good tips, including about the shape of the water gentian and the colour of the skin and of the red eye of the chub.’

About the designer
Bart de Haas (1966, The Hague) studied graphic and typographic design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. After working for a few years at various design agencies, he established himself as an independent graphic and typographic designer in 1993. He has a strong preference for book design but has also designed posters, magazines, websites and visual identities in the past. Bart de Haas designed books for Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, the Delft Army Museum, nai010 publishers, Brill publishers, de Buitenkant, Clio, SUN, THOTH, Vantilt, W-Books and Waanders, among others. For PostNL, he previously created the stamp series Underwater World (2021-2023) and Primal Species (2021-2023) and the stamps Peace, the Highest Value of Humanity and 100 Years of Dutch Windmills (2023),String Instruments (2022), Dutch Castles(2017),Apple and Pear Varieties in the Netherlands(2016),National Musical Instruments(2014) andLong Live the Forest! (2010).

The Underwater Nature stamps will be available, while inventory lasts, from 13 May 2024 at post offices in Buna shops and at www.postnl.nl/bijzondere-postzegels. The stamps are also available for order by telephone from Collect Club’s Customer Service department on +31 (0)88 868 99 00. The validity period is indefinite.

These stamps bear the denomination ‘international 1’, intended for mail up to 20 grams with an international destination. A sheet of 6 stamps costs €10.50.

Stamp size 36 x 25 mm
Sheet size 108 x 150 mm
Paper normal with phosphor print
Gumming gummed
Printing technique offset
Print colours cyan, magenta, yellow, black
Circulation 75,000 sheets
Appearance sheet of 6 stamps in equal designs
Design Bart de Haas, The Hague
Printing house Koninklijke Joh. Enschedé B.V., Haarlem
Item number 440662

© 2024 Koninklijke PostNL BV

Issue: Underwater Nature
Issue date: 13 May 2024
Appearance: sheet of 6 stamps in 6 equal designs, with denomination ‘international 1’ for mail up to 20 grams with an international destination
Item number: 440662
Design: Bart de Haas, The Hague

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