Tag Archives: Sydney Harbour Bridge

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

Famous Philatelists

An unusual item in the collection of the BPMA is the stamp album of the late, great Freddie Mercury. The talented Queen star collected stamps as a boy and his album is one of the few of his personal belongings that still exists in the public domain. 

A page from Freddie Mercurys childhood stamp album

A page from Freddie Mercury's childhood stamp album

Freddie Mercury’s collection includes stamps from a wide range of countries across the world. Many are from the British Empire and those of particular philatelic interest are from Zanzibar, Mercury’s birthplace. The album also incorporates a wide selection of stamps from Eastern Europe and Commonwealth countries. As pop memorabilia and for cultural reference, Freddie Mercury’s collection is priceless.

A stamp from Zanzibar which appears in Freddie Mercurys album

A stamp from Zanzibar which appears in Freddie Mercury's album

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on 5 September 1946 in Zanzibar. Bomi – his father – originally inspired his stamp collecting and it’s believed that Freddie built up his own collection between the ages of nine and twelve.

Following Freddie Mercury’s death on 24 November 1991, the majority of his belongings were burnt in line with his family’s Zoroastrian religious beliefs but Bomi decided to keep the stamp album.

Bomi eventually decided to auction his, and Mercury’s stamp collections and the BPMA, then the National Postal Museum, purchased the album on 17 December 1993. The amount paid was donated to the Mercury Phoenix Trust which is the AIDS charity that was set-up by Queen band members John Deacon, Brian May and Roger Taylor, along with Mercury’s friend Mary Austin.

In 1999 Freddie Mercury appeared on the 19p stamp in the Millennium Series: The Entertainers’ Tale commemoratives, alongside 1966 England World Cup captain Bobby Moore, a dalek from Doctor Who and silent film star Charlie Chaplain.

Freddie Mercury isn’t the only famous pop star to have collected stamps. John Lennon’s stamp album (from circa 1950), which features over 550 stamps from several countries including New Zealand, India and the United States, is currently held by the National Postal Museum (part of the Smithsonian Museum) in Washington D.C.

A stamp from the UK-Australia Joint Issue of 1988, featuring John Lennon

A stamp from the UK-Australia Joint Issue of 1988, featuring John Lennon

John Lennon has appeared on postage stamps in many countries including the UK-Australia Joint Issue of 1988 celebrating the Bicentenary of Australian Settlement (where Lennon is pictured with William Shakespeare, the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge) and The Beatles stamps of 2007. Fans in the United States have set up an online petition to get the US Postal Service to release a stamp commemorating John Lennon’s 70th birthday in 2010.