Tag Archives: National Portrait Gallery

William Shakespeare on stamps

In February we marked International Darwin Day by taking a look at stamps commemorating the achievements of naturalist Charles Darwin. Today we celebrate the work of another notable Briton who has been commemorated on stamps multiple times, playwright and poet William Shakespeare, who died on this day in 1616.

Surprisingly, given the importance of Shakespeare’s contribution to world culture, requests to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth on stamps were not immediately approved. At the time the Post Office would only mark Royal or postal anniversaries, and current events of national or international significance. Lobbying followed, and eventually the stamps were approved as a commemoration of the national Shakespeare Festival of 1964, held to mark Shakespeare’s quatercentenary.

Hamlet contemplating Yorick's Skull, designed by C and R Ironside (issued 1964)

Hamlet contemplating Yorick's Skull, designed by C and R Ironside (issued 1964)

Reynolds Stone and Edward Bawden were amongst those who submitted designs for the stamps, but it was four designs by David Gentleman and a further design by C and R Ironside  which were chosen. The artists had been asked to ensure that if an image of Shakespeare was included in their design that it was not larger than the Queen’s head.

While the Ironside design showed Hamlet rather than Shakespeare, Gentleman’s designs complied with the instructions, but still proved to be controversial. This was partly because Shakespeare’s head was the same size as the Queen’s, giving it equal importance, but mainly because the image of a commoner had never appeared on a stamp before. “This caused a fuss that would be unimaginable now,” Gentleman later noted in his book Artwork. “…And there were jokes in Parliament about the proximity of the Queen’s head to Shakespeare’s Bottom.”

Shakespeare Festival stamps, 1964

Shakespeare Festival stamps, 1964

Shakespeare on a stamp celebrating the Bicentenary of Australian Settlement, 1988

Shakespeare on a stamp celebrating the Bicentenary of Australian Settlement, 1988

The rules were much more relaxed by 1988 when Royal Mail and Australia Post released a joint issue to celebrate the Bicentenary of Australian Settlement. Shakespeare joins John Lennon, the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a stamp reflecting the continuing links between Australia and Britain through the performing arts. The Bicentenary of Australian Settlement stamps were designed by Melbourne-based designer Garry Emery, who was chosen from a number of British and Australian designers by the Stamp Advisory Committees from both countries. The Australian Bicentenary stamps were the first British stamps to be designed outside of the British Isles.

The National Portrait Gallery: William Shakespeare stamp, 2006

The National Portrait Gallery: William Shakespeare stamp, 2006

Shakespeare’s portrait is one of 10 portraits of well known Britons to appear on the stamps marking the 150th Anniversary of the National Portrait Gallery in 2006. The portrait is attributed to John Taylor and the original can be viewed on the National Portrait Gallery website.

British Theatre stamp depicting Hamlet, 1982

British Theatre stamp depicting Hamlet, 1982

Apart from images of Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s work as a playwright and poet has also been commemorated on stamps. The 1982 set on British Theatre included another stamp depicting Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick.

Greetings in Arts: All the Love Poems of Shakespeare, 1995

Greetings in Arts: All the Love Poems of Shakespeare, 1995

In 1947 Sylvan Press published the book All the Love Poems of Shakespeare, with illustrations by Eric Gill. One of Gill’s illustrations was included on a stamp released in 1995 as part of the Greetings In Arts issue. This was not the first British stamp to feature a Gill design. The Coronation stamps for George VI were designed by Gill with Edmund Dulac, and Gill also worked on the Proposed Coronation stamps for Edward VIII.

Also issued in 1995 was a set of stamps to mark the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank. The stamps show not only the original Globe Theatre, but many other Elizabethan theatres in which Shakespeare and his plays were performed.

Reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre stamp issue, 1995

Reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre stamp issue, 1995

In celebration of Charles Darwin

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.

200th Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Darwin stamp issue, 2009

200th Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Darwin stamp issue, 2009

Charles Darwin Galapagos Islands miniature sheet, 2009

Charles Darwin Galapagos Islands miniature sheet, 2009

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.”

Death Centenary of Charles Darwin stamp issue, 1982

Death Centenary of Charles Darwin stamp issue, 1982

Darwin's Theory of Evolution stamp from The Scientist's Tale issue, 1999

Darwin's Theory of Evolution stamp from The Scientist's Tale issue, 1999

John Collier's portrait of Charles Darwin as it appeared on a stamp as part of the National Portrait Gallery 150th Anniversary issue, 2006

John Collier's portrait of Charles Darwin as it appeared on a stamp as part of the National Portrait Gallery 150th Anniversary issue, 2006

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.

Mail Rail back to life for family fun at the BPMA Museum Store

by Laura Dixon, Learning Officer

On Saturday 13th June 2009 the BPMA will be opening the doors of the Museum Store for family visitors to enjoy a day of storytelling fun linked to London’s history, in particular the now defunct driverless underground post train, Mail Rail. 

The Family Day is part of the Story of London festival, which celebrates London throughout June at various venues across the city. Our event is using the StoryRoots team to help families find out more about our collections, London and Mail Rail.

What’s Mail Rail?

Unknown to most, the Post Office Underground Railway operated from 1927 to 2003, 70 feet below the congested streets of London. It delivered post from Whitechapel to Paddington, with nine stations in between, and crossed the city in 20 minutes. Mail Rail (renamed for its 60th birthday in 1987) covered the 6.5 miles using 23 miles of 2 foot gauge track.

Mail Rail was an environmental boon for Royal Mail as it relieved about 80 van loads of mail a day – around 12 million items – from the streets. London had been suffering congestion problems for years and in 1855 Rowland Hill suggested using underground transport to speed the post.

The tunnels for Mail Rail were completed between 1914 and 1917 but work was then put on hold while the First World War continued. Mail Rail opened for business on 5th December 1927.

Loading carriages on the Post Office London Railway

Loading carriages on the Post Office London Railway

Mail Rail tunnels were used during the War to preserve artworks from the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate. In later years Mail Rail diversified again when Bruce Willis stowed away in one of the carriages for a scene in the 1991 box office bomb, Hudson Hawk.

Goodbye Mail Rail

Mail Rail was closed in 2003 due to the expense involved in running it. (Read Mail Rail controller Amanda Smith’s’ thoughts on the closure.) Various suggestions for the use of Mail Rail and its tunnels were suggested but none of these have been taken up and the tunnels are now used for storage and emergency access.

Storytelling

Families coming to the free Family Day can book to attend at either 10.30am or 2.30pm and will be treated to a viewing of the short 1987 Mail Rail film which shows the route of the driverless trains speeding beneath the busy streets.

StoryRoots will then tell stories linked to Mail Rail and encourage visitors to get involved and create some of their own. There will then be a chance to turn stories into short films for use in a zoetrope!

Throughout the day there will also be the chance to take a tour around the Store with our Curator, complete quizzes and trails to help explore the space and take part in more craft activities, such as making your own letter box themed headwear!

We will also find a quieter corner to show the iconic GPO film, Night Mail.

Mail Rail is an important part of London’s transport and cultural heritage. Come along to the Museum Store on 13th June to find out more about it with our staff and storytellers.

For more information on this event please see our website.