Today is International Darwin Day, a global celebration of science and reason held on or around the birth anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. Last year Royal Mail released a set of stamps and a miniature sheet to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, but Darwin or Darwin’s achievements have featured on three other stamp issues, making him one of the most celebrated non-Royals on British stamps.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection came about following his journey aboard the HMS Beagle in the 1830’s. The main aim of the Beagle’s voyage was to conduct a hydrographic survey of South America, but Captain Robert FitzRoy wanted a naturalist onboard who could investigate local geology and natural history; Darwin, who had recently left the University of Cambridge, was chosen. During the journey Darwin collected the fossils of extinct mammals and noted the slight variations in species from region to region. It was these discoveries which were lead to Darwin’s famous theory.
Darwin made his first appearance on British stamps when Royal Mail issued four commemoratives in honour of his death centenary in 1982. The stamps were designed by David Gentleman and are well known to philatelists, but Gentleman’s original concept for the issue was rather different. Gentleman described it in his book Artwork as “four portrait heads [of Darwin], drawn or photographed in childhood, youth, maturity and age…These Victorian portraits of a growing and evolving person were fascinating in themselves and also suggested the idea of a personal evolution.”
When this concept was rejected by the Stamp Advisory Committee, Gentleman came up with a new idea: “For the second set I used only one head, that of Darwin as an old man, flanked in three of the designs by the three pairs of creatures [iguanas, finches and tortoises from the Galapagos Islands] whose puzzling variations helped to spark off his evolutionary theory…The fourth design shows two anthropoid skulls, one from early in the evolutionary scale, the other from halfway along it, again with Darwin’s own inquiring and thoughtful face between them.”
In 1999, as part of The Scientists’ Tale issue, Darwin’s theory of evolution was again celebrated, with a design featuring a fossilised skeleton and a Galapagos finch. A portrait of Darwin, painted by John Collier a year before Darwin’s death, appeared in the 2006 issue celebrating 150 years of the National Portrait Gallery, London. (For a large view of Collier’s portrait, and for more information about it, see the National Portrait Gallery website.)
At the start of this blog we mentioned that Darwin was one of the most celebrated non-Royals on British stamps. In April we’ll be featuring another famous Briton who has also appeared on British stamps multiple times.