In 1981-82 the Royal Mail issued a set of stamp books featuring follies, and Richard Downer, an artist best known for the vast number of lovely line drawings he provided for the covers of Britain’s telephone directories, was commissioned to provided the illustrations. Of the six follies featured, five survive today and are very familiar to anyone with an interest in the subject, but one was relatively obscure, and has a rather interesting history.
Outside of post office opening hours, stamps could be bought from vending machines attached to the building. The stamp books had cardboard covers to protect the postage stamps, and these covers were often illustrated with subjects such as museums, period costumes and postal history.
Downer (born 1933) trained at Leeds College of Art. He then worked as an art director for an advertising agency, before setting up his own design consultancy. Alongside this work, he produced the drawings for the covers of telephone directories from 1967 to 1985, working initially for the GPO and continuing as the organisation became Post Office Telecommunications and then British Telecom. He liked to sketch on-the-spot, and was often an item of curiosity to passers-by. Many stopped to talk, and on one occasion Downer was aware of someone edging ever closer and peering over his shoulder at his sketch (it was his rule to chat, but never to look up from his work). Eventually the person spoke, asking ‘are you going to colour it in when you get home?’
Downer was commissioned in February 1981, and offered a fee of £750 for the six designs. The Post Office’s design team asked the National Trust to suggest folly subjects, and they replied with a copy of an article on ‘National Trust Follies’ which Barbara Jones had recently written for their members’ magazine.
The trust also sent a list of suggested follies which included Creech Arch in Dorset and the Temple of the Winds at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire. The first was discarded, for reasons unknown, and the latter was replaced with the similar structure in County Down, presumably to ensure a good geographical spread. The National Trust properties of Paxton Tower, Mow Cop, Stourhead and Cliveden were all chosen to feature.
Things got rather complicated when a subject in Scotland was required. Downer had already visited what he thought was Mugdock Castle and sketched it for the cover of the Argyll and Lomond telephone directory, issued in 1976. Although it was later established, after some debate, that the building was actually in Stirlingshire, no-one spotted a further error and thousands of telephone directories were circulated ‘without a whisper of anything wrong’.
But Mr Arthur Brown of Southampton purchased a stamp book in August 1981, and noticed that the folly was wrongly named. Having explored the ancient Mugdock Castle as a youth he recognised the little tower, and wrote to the Chief Postmaster in Glasgow to point out that the building featured was not Mugdock Castle, but a nearby tower. The letter was forwarded to the Post Office HQ in London and the planning department of the Central Regional Council were consulted. They confirmed that ‘Mugdock Castle’ was an old fortification, and that the tower was a folly in the surrounding estate. But with the stamp books already in circulation there was little the Post Office could do, although it seems Mr Brown’s was the sole comment, as there is no further correspondence on file.
Locals know the little tower as ‘Smith’s Folly’ as it was built in the early 19th century by James Smith of Craigend. It was constructed ‘partly as an ornament to his grounds and partly for the sake of the splendid view’, and was described in 1922 as being 45-50 feet high, with a stone spiral staircase of ‘interesting construction’, although the writer did not elaborate on the design.
Sadly the tower was then allowed to become derelict. By 1975 the building was a shell, with only skeletal remains of the spiral staircase. This was the view sketched by Downer. Later, the upper storey was taken down, leaving only the ground floor with its gothic windows to be seen. Eventually this too was pulled down, leaving only a few courses of stonework. In 2020 plans were submitted to rebuild the category C listed tower on new foundations, as part of a new semi-subterranean family home. Plans seem to have been withdrawn before the local authority’s decision process began.
Garden buildings have also appeared on an enchanting set of Swedish stamps issued in 2003. Here they are on the first-day cover:
And architect and designer Raymond McGrath created these stamps featuring Irish follies Dromoland Belvedere and Connolly Folly. They were issued in 1978, a year after his death. Do any philatelists out there know of more examples of follies featuring on stamps?
Update September 2022: Here is a stamp issued in 1993 as part of the Art in the 20th Century series. It features the pagoda at Kew Gardens, London
The genuine Mugdock Castle ruins, as well as the ruins of Smith’s Craigend Castle, are features of Mugdock Country Park https://www.mugdock-country-park.org.uk and the remains of the gazebo are nearby on private land.
More of Richard Downer’s work can be seen here http://drawingsoflondon.com/home.html
You can read about the garden buildings featured on the Swedish stamps here http://follies.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/ebulletin/Foll-e-49-Fem-Lusthusen.pdf
After her visit to the Postal Museum Archives the Folly Flâneuse had a great morning exploring the Postal Museum itself, including a trip on the redundant underground Mail Rail – highly recommended! https://www.postalmuseum.org
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