Tag Archives: literature

Celebrations of Literature

Novels are regularly depicted on commemorative stamps as part of Royal Mail’s aim to reflect British contribution to the arts. Appealing to the dual market of philatelists and bibliophiles, these issues are extremely popular. From a design perspective, the issues have enjoyed varied levels of success. This blog examines two magnificent celebrations of British literature, Sherlock Holmes 1993 and Peter Pan 2002, and evaluates two issues which were arguably less successful, Jane Austen 2013 and Harry Potter 2007. Commemorative stamps depicting novels must conform to the functional requirements of all British postage: to clearly show the monarch’s head and the value of the stamp. Artists are tasked with transmitting the spirit of a novel onto a canvas sometimes as small as 20mm by 24mm.

The Peter Pan issue, illustrated by Colin Shearing, was released on 20 August 2002 to mark the 150th Anniversary of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. The issue commemorates the institution’s relationship with the author which was cemented when Barrie bequeathed the story’s rights to the hospital in 1929. The power of imagination fills in the gaps intentionally left in three of the designs.

Captain Hook stamp, issued 20 August 2002.

Captain Hook stamp, issued 20 August 2002.

On the 47p stamp, Captain Hook’s large figure and feathered hat is shown in silhouette with his infamous hook protruding from the image. The artist has reduced the size of the already small stamp to a slither through which one eye and a menacing smile glower at the viewer.

Peter Pan stamp, issued 20 August 2002.

Peter Pan stamp, issued 20 August 2002.

The practice of only showing part of a character is taken a step further in the depiction of Peter Pan. Peter’s pixie boots and legs clad in green tights are shown at the moment of taking flight against a vivid red background. There is no face in the design yet there is no question that this is Peter.

Wendy, John and Michael Darling in front of Big Ben. Stamp issued 20 August 2002.

Wendy, John and Michael Darling in front of Big Ben. Stamp issued 20 August 2002.

The first class stamp, my personal favourite, depicts the silhouettes of Wendy, George and Michael with the characters only identifiable by a nightgown, a top hat and umbrella, and a teddy bear respectively. The images are effective representations of Peter Pan because they do not attempt to portray the characters in complete detail. The images hint at the characters’ exploits and leave the viewers’ imagination to complete the picture. When Captain Hook bursts through the sail, one knows exactly how his figure will loom before us. As Peter Pan takes flight, one can hear his woops and yells. As the three children make their way to Neverland, we know what wondrous adventures await them. The stamps are a testament to the novel and emphasise the magic and excitement of the story. The illustrations cleverly manipulate the confines of the small scale and turn this limitation into a design advantage by demanding the participation of the viewers’ imagination.

In contrast to the strength of the Peter Pan issue is the Harry Potter issue, with seven stamps reproducing the seven novel jackets, which was released in 2007 to mark the completion of J. K. Rowling’s saga. One might argue that the decision to use the book jackets is a tribute to the positive influence of the novels on children’s literacy as opposed to a quick design fix however a successful book jacket does not automatically translate into a successful stamp. Due to the scaling down of the image size, much of the font is extremely small and the illustrations are no longer striking. Whilst the images are recognisbale due to the prevalence of the book jacket they, unlike the Peter Pan issue, do not speak to the imagination in a new or interesting way.

Harry Potter book cover stamps, issued 17 July 2007.

Harry Potter book cover stamps, issued 17 July 2007.

The Jane Austen issue, released in 2013 to mark the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, is arguably unsuccessful despite featuring newly commissioned artwork. The illustrations are certainly very pretty but they do not capture the urgency or emotion of the moments they portray. The 77p Mansfield Park stamp depicts a Fanny Price who does not appear to be reaching for the door handle in “desperation” while fighting panic and anxiety over what waits for her beyond the threshold. On the first class Sense and Sensibility stamp, Marianne certainly looks quite poorly but not “almost choked by grief”. The illustration does not parallel Austen’s distressing description of a young girl almost screaming in “agony”.

Jane Austen stamps, issued 21 February 2013.

Jane Austen stamps, issued 21 February 2013.

The issue depicts fabulous regency costumes and interiors which lovers of the period will admire however there is no juxtaposition of the human experience, which Austen describes unflinchingly with all of its embarrassments; humour; conceits and pain, against this background of polite society.

Released in 1993 to mark the centenary of The Final Problem, the Sherlock Holmes issue features a restrained colour palette, ominous images and expressive characters. Utilising forest green, grey and black across the illustrations ties the issue together nicely. The creature is suitably menacing in The Hound of the Baskervilles, characters look chillingly out into the darkness in The Greek Interpreter and the falling hat and crumbling rock in The Final Problem emphasise the characters’ peril. The inclusion of the deerstalker in the 24p stamp may understandably rile Sherlock Holmes puritans! For the aspiring sleuth, the issue contains a mystery: hidden within the issue is a five letter anagram which I invite you to puzzle over. The Sherlock Holmes illustrations communicate the novel’s themes and demonstrate how stamps can engage and intrigue. The ordinary postage stamp which drops through our letter box, lands on our desk and is handled by countless people every day is in a unique position to act as an instrument of inspiration and a celebration of literature.

Sherlock Holmes. Centenary of the Publication off "The Final Problem" stamps, issued 12 October 1993.

Sherlock Holmes. Centenary of the Publication off “The Final Problem” stamps, issued 12 October 1993.

– Joanna Espin, Philatelic Assistant

Which issue do you think celebrates literature most successfully?

Do you have a favourite literature issue which was not discussed here?

Is there a novel which you think should be immortalised on a postage stamp?

Charles Dickens stamps

Mr Bumble, Mr Pickwick and Mr Micawber are all instantly recognisable creations of Charles Dickens, one of Britain’s greatest novelists. To commemorate the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth Royal Mail is celebrating his life and work of with ten new stamps issued today.

The stamps feature iconic characters from some of Dickens’ most famous novels, including Mr Bumble from Oliver Twist, Mr Micawber from David Copperfield and Captain Cuttle from Dombey and Son. Six of the stamps feature original illustrations adapted from Character Sketches from Charles Dickens, by Joseph Clayton Clarke (otherwise known as Kyd) and originally published around 1890.

2nd Class – Mr Bumble – Oliver Twist; 1st Class – Mr Pickwick – The Pickwick Papers; 77p – The Marchioness – The Old Curiosity Shop; 87p – Mrs Gamp – Martin Chuzzlewitt; £1.28 – Captain Cuttle – Dombey and Son; £1.90 – Mr Micawber – David Copperfield.

2nd Class – Mr Bumble – Oliver Twist; 1st Class – Mr Pickwick – The Pickwick Papers; 77p – The Marchioness – The Old Curiosity Shop; 87p – Mrs Gamp – Martin Chuzzlewitt; £1.28 – Captain Cuttle – Dombey and Son; £1.90 – Mr Micawber – David Copperfield.

Royal Mail is also issuing a miniature sheet of four stamps of illustrations by Hablot Knight Brown (known as Phiz), who illustrated ten books by Dickens.

1st Class - Nicholas Nickleby; 1st Class - Bleak House; 1st Class - Little Dorrit; 1st Class - A Tale of Two Cities.

1st Class – Nicholas Nickleby; 1st Class – Bleak House; 1st Class – Little Dorrit; 1st Class – A Tale of Two Cities.

The presentation pack that accompanies the issue is written by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, who takes a look at her great, great, great grandfather’s life and works.

Charles Dickens or his work has appeared on three previous stamp issues: Literary Anniversaries (1970), Christmas (150th Anniversary of A Christmas Carol, 1993) and Musicals (Oliver! 2011).

Four stamps from the Literary Anniversaries issue, 3 June 1970. 5d – Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller – Pickwick Papers; 5d – Mr and Mrs Micawber – David Copperfield; 5d - David Copperfield and Betsy Trotwood – David Copperfield; 5d - Oliver asking for more – Oliver Twist.

Four stamps from the Literary Anniversaries issue, 3 June 1970. 5d – Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller – Pickwick Papers; 5d – Mr and Mrs Micawber – David Copperfield; 5d – David Copperfield and Betsy Trotwood – David Copperfield; 5d – Oliver asking for more – Oliver Twist.

150th Anniversary of Publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens issue, 9 November 2011. 19p – Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim; 25p – Mr and Mrs Fezziwig; 30p – Scrooge; 35p – The Prize Turkey; 41p – Mr Scrooge’s Nephew.

150th Anniversary of Publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens issue, 9 November 2011. 19p – Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim; 25p – Mr and Mrs Fezziwig; 30p – Scrooge; 35p – The Prize Turkey; 41p – Mr Scrooge’s Nephew.

A stamp from the Stage Musicals issue, 22 February 2011. 1st Class - Oliver!

A stamp from the Stage Musicals issue, 22 February 2011. 1st Class – Oliver!

Two first day of issue handstamps are available with the new Charles Dickens stamps. One features Dickens’ initials and Dickens’ sometime pseudonym “Boz”, the other features a book design.

Charles Dickens first day of issue handstamps.

Charles Dickens first day of issue handstamps.

The Charles Dickens stamps and stamp products are available at all Post Office branches, online and from Royal Mail Tallents House (tel. 08457 641 641), 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, EH12 9PB.

Two Charles Dickens Coaching Prints from our collection can be viewed on Flickr.

Dickens Coaching Prints

Today marks 200 years since the birth of Charles John Huffam Dickens, Victorian novelist and arguably one of the earliest ‘literary celebrities’. Dickens’ works remain popular today for their colourful characters, intricate plots and social commentary, and the anniversary allows me to highlight a couple of items from the BPMA’s collection; namely two hand coloured prints of Dickens coaching scenes.

The prints show scenes from two of Dickens’ novels; David Copperfield and Great Expectations. The artist, Albert Ludovici Jr. (1852-1932), had a particular fondness for the English ‘coaching age’ and these prints are part of a larger series of coaching scenes, probably made in the late 1800’s, featuring episodes from Dickens novels. At least 16 of Ludovici’s Dickens Coaching series were later acquired by R. Tuck and Sons of Bishopsgate, London who produced the prints in the BPMA collection.

David Copperfield arrives in London (2009-0055/1)

David Copperfield arrives in London (2009-0055/1)

In ‘David Copperfield Arrives in London’ the young David can bee seen standing at the back of a mail coach which has stopped in the street outside ‘The Blue Boar/ Posting Establishment’. The coach has a sign at back giving the main stops along the route – in this instance London, Ipswich and Yarmouth. The artist has captured the liveliness of the scene, including some suitably ‘Dickensian’ characters such as a dapper gentleman with an eye patch and an old woman getting off the coach by ladder.

‘The Meeting of Pip & Estella in the Inn Yard’ shows the adult Pip and Estella standing outside ‘The Crosskeys/ Coffee House’. Again, a red and black mail coach form part of the background for the scene.

The Meeting of Pip & Estella in the Inn Yard (2009-0055/2)

The Meeting of Pip & Estella in the Inn Yard (2009-0055/2)

Although today the term ‘Dickensian’ is often used to reflect the Victorian era in general, many of Dickens’ novels, including the two depicted here, are set somewhat earlier, before the development of the railways led to the end of the mail coach service. Certainly, the romance of the mail coach outlasted the service itself, as reflected in the artist’s comments about the series in his memoirs An Artists’ Life in London and Paris:

I cannot help feeling sorry for the present generation, who have no idea of these good old times, and my only regret is that I did not live in the coaching days, which I have so often tried to depict in my Charles Dickens coaching series of pictures.

Both prints have a copyright notice dated 1903 and their clarity suggests that they may possibly be facsimiles of the originals. The prints are lovely items in themselves, and it is arguable that continued reproductions of the images in the early 20th Century simply reflect the enduring popular appeal of many of Dickens’ well-loved characters.

– Sarah Jenkins, Assistant Cataloguer (Collections)

See larger version of these two prints on our Flickr site. Find out more about Mail Coaches on our website, where you can also see items from our collection related to Horse-Drawn Mail.