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Harm Kamerlingh Onnes
The Lengthy Process of Designing Stamps

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Harm Kamerlingh Onnes was a highly respected Dutch artist. Over time his talent developed from abstract art to an entertaining expressionist style. He began his career in 1914 with paintings following the path of his father, Menso Kamerlingh Onnes, using a broad palette and swift brush strokes inspired by Vincent van Gogh and the Impressionists.  

Harm Kamerlingh Onnes. Private photograph in front of self-portrait 1948.

Through his friend, the architect J.J.P. Oud, he came into contact with the artists and artistic ideas of the Dutch group "De Stijl", but he never officially joined the movement. 

Instead he developed to be a story-teller from an ironical point of view, always very observing of the caprices of current life style. 

From the 1950s he began working with ceramics and glass painting, through which media he expressed his vivid imagination and well developed sense of humour. 

  • Private photograph of the artist, taken in front of a self-portrait painted 1948. 

In 1929 Harm Kamerlingh Onnes was commissioned to design the below set of semi-postals "For The Child". He chose a design "Child Riding a Dolphin". The letter giving the artist this commission, dated 18-07-1929 is shown here. 

The Dutch text reads:
To H.H. Kamerlingh Onnes (H.H. = Harm Hendrik) 

Herewith we inform you that the Board of Directors of Dutch PTT asked for our advice concerning the issue of the children benefit stamps 1929. 

Our institution has recommended you for the task. We will be pleased to hear from you whether you accept this task.  

If you accept the job, we charge you 10% of your payment for our advice, intermediation and information. This rule is known by Dutch PTT. We have the habit to inform both parties of this rule, and leave it up to the parties involved how we will receive the administrative fee.

With respect
Instituut voor Sier en Nijverheidskunst 

Below are shown the final stamps, a flyer announcing the availability, and a design sheet that varies slightly from the final issuance on the left. It is the first time ever, this design sheet has been published on the Internet. 

There exists several drafts from the artist's hands for these stamps. Below are shown two of these, made on the back side of a used envelope! The coloured drawings on both envelopes show the true size of the real stamp, compared to the size of the drafts. 

There exists a number of newspaper articles from that time about the rather controversial stamp design for the time; below are shown two of them from 1929 and 1930, respectively. All articles talk about "de postzegel met het naakte joggie op den rug van den dolfijn" ["The naked boy riding the back of the dolphin"], and try to understand why this design was chosen for the stamp. The answer from the official committee was that it has to do with child protection, as the dolphin is a Greek and Roman symbol for friendship and safety. 

Some of the articles mention the Danish Christmas Seal from 1926 -- shown on the left -- but all conclude that the similarity between the Dutch stamp and the Danish Christmas Seal is accidental. 

However, one Dutch newspaper, "Het Volk", January 27,1930, attacks both the Danish and Dutch issues, claiming that both designs were stolen from a book which appeared in 1644: Iconologica of uytbeeldingen des Verstands. [Iconology of Forming the Intellect]. This book shows a design made by Cesare Ripa van Perugien (1644), but was hardly available to neither the Dutch nor Danish artist in the late 1920s. 

  • Denmark 1926. Christmas Seal. 

Contemporary newspaper clipping, showing the artist's stamp, and a photograph of a child on a dolphin at the ruin of Heisterback, Koningswinter, Germany. 

Cesare Ripa's "Child on Dolphin"-design from 1644. 

Once the center of the Caribbean slave trade, the island of Curacao was hard hit by the abolition of slavery in 1863. Its prosperity (and that of neighboring Aruba) was restored in the early 20th century with the construction of oil refineries to service the newly discovered Venezuelan oil fields. The island of Saint Martin is shared with France; its southern portion is named Sint Maarten and is part of the Netherlands Antilles; its northern portion is called Saint-Martin and is part of Guadeloupe (France). The Netherlands Antilles are an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands; full autonomy in internal affairs was granted in 1954; the Dutch Government responsible for defense and foreign affairs. The Capital is Willemstad, located on Curaçao, the largest of the islands. 

Netherlands Antilles 1956. Harm Kamerlingh Onnes. St. Anna Bridge in Willemstad, Curaçao.

In 1956 Harm Kamerlingh Onnes was commissioned to design a stamp for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Caribbean Commission. 

The stamp is highly symbolic and strict in the design, showing the Dutch, British, French and American national flags below a symbolic bridge uniting the different parts of the country, and further classical Dutch warehouses in a stylized design on either side of the bridge. 

  • Netherlands Antilles 1956. The Emma-bridge across St. Anna Bay, Willemstad, Curaçao. 

An aerial photograph of the Emma-Bridge across St. Anna Bay in Willemstad.  

Ancient snapshot of the Emma-bridge, and the Dutch warehouses on the left side of the bridge. 

There are several design-drafts for this stamp. Here are the first pencil drafts made on the back side of a price list from the post office. He would always use any bit of paper to draw on :-)

And here are some water colour drafts, made on different types of paper and cardboard. Note the mistake in the colours of the French national flag, that is repeated through all the designs, but were corrected in the final stamp. The drafts are different both in colour depth of the blue, and in the colour of the denomination.  

On the right is a used block of four stamps of the final stamp, issued 1956. 

In 1997 the Historic Area of Willemstad, the Inner City and the Harbour were declared World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Read more about the World Heritage Site here. 

In 1957 Harm Kamerlingh Onnes was commissioned to participate in the design of the annual set of Summer Stamps for the benefit of social and cultural welfare. Stamp design is normally a closely defined job, and there is not much room for individual ideas, particularly when other designers participate in the design of a full set. The artist designed the 6+4c stamp in the top row; the other participants in the design group are unknown. 

The Netherlands 1957. First day cancel of semi-postal set of summer stamps. The Netherlands 1957. Harm Kamerlingh Onnes. Close-up of stamp designed by Kamerlingh Onnes.

And here are the design drafts for this stamp. The sheet, torn out out of sketch-book, shows various designs in various colours, and the three drafts on the right show various attempts in water colour with different colour depths and on different types of paper. The first draft has the star constellation Crux and the noun "Kustvaarder" [Coaster] in Dutch. The second draft has the word "Coaster" in English, and the third draft again shows Crux. All of the drafts have different face values. None of these designs were accepted. The final stamp, shown immediately above, has the moon crescent and a compass rose, plus the face value of 6+4c. 

The painter Harm Kamerlingh Onnes should not be confused with his famous uncle, the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (1853-1926), who in 1913 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. 

(see Heike Kamerlingh Onnes Biography

  • The Netherlands 1936. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes.  
  • Sweden 1973. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (portrait on the right of the stamp). 

The Netherlands 1936. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (physicist).

Sweden 1973. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (physicist) and Nobel Prize Laureate.

Sources and links: 

Other Expressionist artists on this site: 

All scans of non-philatelic material and various stamp designs on this page are submitted by the artist's family, living in The Netherlands, and are their property. They are shown here with explicit permission uniquely for this web page. None of such material may be reproduced in any way, including by electronic means, without the prior written consent of the proprietor, who wishes to remain anonymous to the public. 

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