Countdown to Sotheby’s: Tides of change, the King George V “Seahorse” issues

On 11 July the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) will be selling 191 lots of surplus, duplicate philatelic material at Sotheby’s auction house. The proceeds of the sale will support the significant fundraising efforts currently being undertaken by the BPMA to deliver an important new postal museum and archive in Central London. In this blog Harry Huskisson, communications manager at the BPMA explains why the King George V “Seahorse” Issues are his favourite item from the sale.

I cannot admit to being an expert when it comes to the technical ins and outs of stamps. As fresh meat to the philatelic scene knowing the difference between perforate and imperforate is pretty much as good as it gets.

But that doesn’t mean stamps don’t interest me, even if I wouldn’t class myself as a philatelist. What amazes me is their design and the stories they can tell – the implicit or explicit moment in time that they represent. For both those reasons I’ve picked the George V Seahorse issue as my stamp of choice from the lots on offer at Sotheby’s on July 11.

Lot 7: King George V, 1934. Re-engraved set of 3 marginal singles (2s6d example). Estimated at £5,000-£6,000.

Lot 7: King George V, 1934. Re-engraved set of 3 marginal singles (2s6d example). Estimated at £5,000-£6,000.

Even at first glance it’s hard to ignore the sheer beauty, complexity and power of this stamp. Purely on an aesthetic level you can’t fail to appreciate the intricacies of the design and the hours the engraver must have spent bent double perfecting each individual element.

But what I love most is the powerful history this stamp can tell. Although the lots on sale date from 1915-1934, the “Seahorse” Issues first appeared in 1913, and appear to give an interesting insight into the national psyche during a period of rapid change and threat to the British Empire. The stamps picture Britannia all-powerful, defiant and in command of the turbulent sea. First produced at a time of heightened Anglo-German naval tension and major advancements in maritime technology, it represents a Britain that is either oblivious to – or desperately trying to hide the realisation of – what lies just around the corner, the cataclysm of mechanised warfare and the beginning of the end as the world’s greatest colonial power.

In my opinion, it is a unique insight into a country making a concerted effort to portray itself in a certain light to its subjects and its rivals, perhaps not completely unaware but neither completely aware of the shifting tides on the European continent. It screams power, and almost seems to goad its nearest rivals with its overt reference to naval might. Affixed to packages disseminated across the globe from the hub of the Empire not just throughout the First World War but up to the outbreak of the Second World War, this stamp would have been seen further afield than the British colonies, and could even be seen as a small piece of propaganda.

This stamp does not, perhaps, lend much to the arguments around Empire and Britain’s position on the world stage during the first half of the 20th Century, but it does offer a unique insight, as does so much in the BPMA’s collection, into Britain’s social history.

Lot 4: Complete sheet of the 1923 Bradbury Wilkinson 10s 'Seahorse' design, printed on 'Joynson' paper. Estimated at £100,000-120,000, it is extremely rare since no other examples exist on the philatelic market.

Lot 4: Complete sheet of the 1923 Bradbury Wilkinson 10s ‘Seahorse’ design, printed on ‘Joynson’ paper. Estimated at £100,000-120,000, it is extremely rare since no other examples exist on the philatelic market.

Detail of Lot 4 (above).

Detail of Lot 4 (above).

Please visit Sotheby’s sale page to find out more about the lots on offer.

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