Animals have featured on British stamps at least once a year since 1960; either as the main focus of the issue or to symbolise cultural traditions. The recurrence of animals on stamps reveals their varied importance; as pets, as the focus of preservation campaigns, as sporting and working companions, in art and literature, in folklore, and as symbols of national values.
Depictions of animals on stamps from 1911 until the 1960s were often symbolic promotions of the strength of the Empire. In 1924 a lion represented the British Empire’s power; in 1929 a horse alluded to medieval chivalry; in 1946 a dove represented peace; and in 1948 a cart horse signified a perceived return to a pastoral ideal in liberated Jersey.
The 1960s saw a continuation of animal symbolisation, for example a squirrel happily embodied the message of a 1961 Post Office Savings Bank stamp. This decade also saw the first instance of animals as a stamp issue’s central theme with National Nature Week in 1963.
In the late 1970s a yearly animal routine was established, with British Wildlife 1977, Horses 1978 and Dogs 1979 issued successively, and this pattern has only increased in subsequent years, accompanied by the development of a number of themes.
Animal companionship is emphasised in issues such as the endearing Cats and Dogs 2001, Cats 1995, Dogs 1981 and Dogs 1979.
Conservation is advocated in issues such as Action for Species 2007 – 2010, World Wildlife Fund 2011, and the 1998 Endangered Species issue. The diversity of British species was explored in Sea Life 2007, Insects 2008 and Woodland Creatures 2004. The importance of animal welfare was championed in RSPCA 1990 and Battersea Dogs and Cats 2010.
Working Animals were the focus of issues such as All the Queen’s Horses 1997, Farm Animals 2005, and feature on the forthcoming Working Horses issue.
Birds of Prey 2003 featured astounding images of a barn owl and kestrel mid-flight, demonstrating wildlife photography techniques.
Animals’ connection with folklore was explored in Folklore 1981, which depicted love birds for Valentine’s Day and animal heads atop Medieval Mummers. Animals’ connection with superstition was explored in Good Luck 1991, which featured a magpie (spotting one, according to superstition, signifies impending sorrow, while seeing two means joy), a kingfisher (said to be able to forecast the weather) and a black cat (signifying good or bad luck, depending on who you ask). Cats and dogs rain from the sky in the 2001 issue Weather, in a nod to the traditional adage.
Images of birds symbolised migration in the 1999 Settlers’ Tale issue, and hope in the 1992 Protection of the Environment issue.
The prevalence of animals in British art, literature and theatre is demonstrated in issues such as Animal Tales 2006, Just So Stories 2002, Edward Lear 1988, Shakespeare Festival 1964 and British Paintings 1967.
This frequent return to animals in stamp design demonstrates the variety of ways in which we interact with animals and their varied role in cultural traditions.
There are many, many more depictions of animals on stamps. Which is your favourite?
-Joanna Espin, Philatelic Assistant