Five decades ago receiving a letter or postcard in the mail was an everyday occurrence. Email, as we know it, didn’t exist. Ray Johnson captured an audience for his art using mailboxes in lieu of museum walls. Johnson, a New York artist, created works of art, primarily collages, on envelopes and postcards, and sent them through the mail.
In the book, The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects, John Tingey explains how a forerunner of Johnson, W. Reginald Bray, mailed unusual objects, including himself, a "living letter." Bray, a hobbyist, not an artist, wanted to test the limits of the UK postal service. Imagine his father’s surprise when his son was delivered to his doorstep!Tingey’s book includes a photo of the event, which took place in 1903.
During his life, Bray sent what is now called “naked mail" in which the objects themselves were the letters. They were not wrapped in packaging; stamps were adhered to the bare object and the address written across it. For Bray, the challenge was to see if the Post Office would comply with postal regulations set forth in the Post Office Guide, a quarterly publication. He mailed a turnip, a rabbit's skull, a shirt collar.
In 2001 John Tingey stumbled upon some of Bray's unusual postcards at a stamp auction in Oxfordshire. Tingey's book provides historical momentos from his collection of Bray's curious letters and postcards. Bray experimented with the social media of his era; over the years he mailed more than thirty thousand requests for autographs, documenting each reply.
Tingey describes how Bray often mailed a rolled up newspaper with a postcard, addressed to someone in a foreign country, inside. He wanted to find out if the postcard would be discovered and reach its destination. Could Bray have been inspired by the story of Cleopatra mailing herself in a rolled up carpet to Julius Caesar?
Check out The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects if you are curious about Bray’s legacy of letters. If you want to create your own mail art, I suggest another book in the Virginia Beach Public Library collection, Good Mail Day, A Primer for Making Eye-Popping Postal Art. It includes a chapter, “From Dadaists to Dilettantes” on the history of mail art. Have fun and be creative, but know your postal regulations!
Review by Sandi H.