Behind the Exhibition: Pushing the Envelope

The highlights of working on our forthcoming postal art exhibition, Pushing the Envelope.


  • Katie Nairne
  • Exhibitions

Fetching the post used to be a chore, but in the last few weeks the team at House of Illustration has been excited to see what would come through the letterbox next.

We’ve had a fantastic selection of postal art arrive from illustrators and artists, on envelopes in a range of shapes and sizes. My personal favourites include a cartoon strip by Nick Sharratt, bold typography from Zoë Allen, and an atmospheric print by Charles Shearer.

The Pushing the Envelope exhibition was kick-started by Neil Hadfield, Illustration Course Leader at Hereford College of Arts. We’ve enjoyed working with him to create an eclectic touring exhibition – to be displayed at Hereford College of Arts, House of Illustration and Hay Festival – to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Penny Black stamp.

On one level , this is an exhibition with a distinctly British feel as we celebrate the Victorian invention of a tiny square of paper that revolutionised the postal service. However, one of the wonderful elements of the exhibition process has been communicating with illustrators from all over the world, seeing their work come in from places as far-flung as Japan and Brazil, and considering the adventures our envelopes might have had as they travelled to our gallery.

For me personally, this has been an opportunity to learn more about postal art and to immerse myself in my own collection of envelopes, ephemera and stamps. Although people have been adorning messages since they could write them, the term ‘mail art’ was first used in the 1960s, when artist Ray Johnson started sending collages and urging the recipients to add to them, post them to others, keep them or return them.

Since then, postal art has retained a spirit of inclusion, playfulness and community. Even with the growth of the internet, the fragility and tactile qualities of non-digital communication are enjoyed by many: the Royal Mail still delivers around 16.6 billion letters a year in the UK.

Above: about 1% of my mail-related hoard

Katie Nairne
Curatorial Project Co-ordinator