An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Another full house today, with special guests Anatole France, J. M. Synge, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Ustinov, Spike Milligan, and Henry Mancini. But as usual, that’s just for starters.
We begin with Charlie Chaplin only because the profusion of Chaplin stamps from all over the world, most of them portraying him in his characteristic Little Tramp guise, demands an exclusive collage. We have two from his native Britain and two from his adopted United States (from which government he would receive extremely shabby and disgraceful treatment over his leftist leanings during the Red Scare). I place these above a handsome block from the Maldive Islands. At either side are placed two stamps from Austria and—believe it or not—Vatican City. Beneath them are examples from Albania (“Shqiperia”), Argentina, Monaco, and Uruguay, and the bottom row offers stamps from India, Congo (DR), the Solomon Islands, Cuba, and two from Czechoslovakia, and these are by no means all.
I suppose the most often-quoted fact about Anatole France (16 April 1844 – 12 October 1924) is that despite his brilliance he was found after his death to have had an unusually small brain, only about three-quarters the normal weight. France grew up around books, his father having been a bookseller whose store was frequented by scholars. His own first literary efforts were in the form of articles and poems, his first novel, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881), not appearing until he was already 37. (Must have been that small brain.) A member of the Académie française from 1896, he was a Dreyfusard, even writing a novel on the subject, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921.
Ironically, it was at age 37 that J. M. Synge died. Edmund John Millington Synge (16 April 1871 – 24 March 1909) was born to an Anglo-Irish Protestant family. He lost his father in infancy and studied music intensively. It looked as if he might devote his life to music, even after publishing a poem when he was 22, until he decided, because of shyness and self-doubt as a performer, to turn to literature instead. After studies in Germany, Paris, and Italy, he met Yeats, with whom he was one of the founders of what later became the Abbey Theatre. He wrote a book about the Aran Islands with illustrations by Yeats’s father Jack. These investigations would inform Synge’s later work about Irish rural life. That book was published in the same year as the appearance of his best known drama, The Playboy of the Western World (1907). Earlier plays had met with the disapproval of nationalist critics, but this one caused a riot. Plagued with poor health from childhood, Synge died of Hodgkin’s disease two years later. He was an influence on Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, and Samuel Beckett, for all of whom we have seen stamps in these pages this year. The most celebrated musical treatment of Synge is surely Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 1927 opera after Synge’s second play, Riders to the Sea (1904), but that play also served as operatic fodder for works by Bruce Montgomery (Spindrift, 1963), Eduard Pütz (1972, with a libretto by Heinrich Böll!), and American composer Marga Richter (1996). The Playboy of the Western World has twice been translated to the operatic stage, by Giselher Klebe (1975) and Mark Alburger (2007). I first saw that play in a televised version with the late John Hurt playing young Christy (that’s how long ago it was).
The delightful Sir Peter Ustinov was also born on April 16, in the year 1921. I offer just a few interesting points about this enormously gifted actor, writer, director (of theater, film, and opera), linguist, lecturer, broadcaster, memoirist, car enthusiast, and diplomat. His name derives from his Russian ancestry, but this quintessential Englishman was also part Polish Jewish, German, and Ethiopian. He spoke fluent French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian, along with some Turkish and modern Greek, and frequently dubbed his own parts for foreign releases of his films. He made a delightful recording of Mozart’s short opera The Impresario, in which he dispensed with the silly original dialogue and provided his own much wittier monologue. He once designed sets and costumes for a production of Don Giovanni. He was scheduled to interview Indira Gandhi on the day she was assassinated. He played Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (as seen on the stamp from Dominica) in six films. He died, aged 82, on 28 March 2004. I would really love to have met him.
Next year will be the centenary of Spike Milligan (16 April 1918 – 27 February 2002), who, like J. M. Synge, in a way, was also Anglo-Irish in that he had an Irish father and an English mother. He was born, however, in India, and grew up there and in Burma. He hated his given name of Terence and took to calling himself Spike rather early on. Again like J. M. Synge, he was a keen musician, except that his first love was jazz. He served in World War II (was wounded at Monte Cassino) and much later wrote a seven-volume memoir of his service, the first part of which was called Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. He met Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and Michael Bentine and started The Goon Show in 1951. Milligan suffered from extreme depression requiring hospitalization on multiple occasions. He was also known for his social activism against domestic violence and noise pollution.
Henry (born Enrico Nicola) Mancini (April 16, 1924 – June 14, 1994), of course, also had a connection with Peter Sellers in that Mancini wrote the famous theme for the Pink Panther movies. He was born in Cleveland, grew up near Pittsburgh, studied piccolo from the age of eight, served in World War II (was present at the liberation of Mauthausen), and then began his musical career in earnest. He worked with Glenn Miller, studied with Krenek and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and went to work for Universal, where, appropriately enough, one of his first projects was The Glenn Miller Story (1954). This earned him his first Oscar nomination. He went on to win four (best song, “Moon River”, and best score for Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, best song for “Days of Wine and Roses” in 1962, and best score for Victor/Victoria in 1982), along with twenty Grammys (72 nominations!) and other awards. He was honored on an American stamp ten years after his death.
Now we turn to earlier centuries for our next five birthday children, all visual artists. Son of a goldsmith, Frans van Mieris the Elder (16 April 1635 – 12 March 1681) was the father and grandfather of painters. He worked in the workshop of Gerrit Dou, whose birthday we acknowledged here just nine days ago, and like him always worked on a small scale. The East German stamp shows his Duet (1658).
Jules Hardouin-Mansart (16 April 1646 – 11 May 1708) was the grand-nephew of François Mansart, for whom the Mansard roof is named. Jules Hardouin assumed his illustrious forebear’s name as well as inheriting his plans and drawings, but outstripped him in rank as chief architect for Louis XIV and in his achievements. These include the completion of Libéral Bruant’s chapel for Les Invalides (see the orange stamp), the Grand Trianon (the stamp next to it) and the Orangerie for Versailles, and for Paris the Pont-Royal, the initial work on the Church of Saint-Roch, the Place des Victoires, and the Place Vendôme, among others.
A French artist of a later generation was the painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842). She was the daughter of a portraitist and fan painter who died when she was twelve and the wife of the painter Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun. She earned the admiration of Marie Antoinette, whom she painted many times. She fled the French Revolution and thrived in Russia, Austria, and Italy. Four of the five stamps we display are self-portraits, two of them with Vigée Le Brun’s daughter Jeanne-Lucie. The last, at right, is Portrait of Doamnei d Aguesseau. The center picture, by the way, Self-portrait in a Straw Hat (1782), comes from an expansive set of twelve souvenir sheets, each with a different painting. Vigée Le Brun left some 660 portraits and 200 landscapes.
Again we leap forward in time, but now with a trip across the channel for English painter Ford Madox Brown (16 April 1821 – 6 October 1893). As it happens, though, we hop right back to the continent, as Madox Brown was born in Calais and pursued his art studies in Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. Reception of his work in England was sluggish, but Madox Brown earned the admiration of the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became his pupil and years later co-founded with him the short-lived Hogarth Club with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Later still, Madox Brown would join Morris as one of the founders of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Madox Brown’s two most famous pictures are probably The Last of England (1855) and Work, which occupied him from 1852 to 1865. (A second, smaller version was completed in 1863.) The stamp, though, shows us Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6), which can be better seen here.
Another architect brings us back (just) into the 20th century. Hans Wilhelm Auer (16 April 1847 – 30 August 1906) was born near Zurich and assisted the Danish-born architect Theophilus Hansen in Vienna. (Hansen, who built the Vienna Musikverein among numerous other structures in Vienna and Greece, had been a student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whom we discussed here just last month.) Auer’s best known building is the Swiss Bundeshaus (Federal Palace) in Bern, begun in 1894, completed in 1902, and commemorated on a stamp a century later.
The Indian writer Kandukuri Veeresalingam (16 April 1848 – 27 May 1919) was a social reformer who was particularly concerned with the rights of women—their education, their emancipation from child marriages and the dowry system, and widows’ freedom to remarry. He wrote about these struggles and against the rigidity of the Brahmin preisthood in his plays and in his novel Rajasekhara Charitramu (1858). This is considered to be the first (or second) novel to be written in the Telugu language common to his native region of Andhra Pradesh on the east coast of India. There are other novels as well as poetry and many articles, and he translated much Sanskrit and English literature into Telugu.
Swedish-Jewish painter Ernst Josephson (16 April 1851 – 22 November 1906) worked primarily in portraits and folklore. He studied in France, Italy, and the Netherlands, and executed his most famous painting, Näcken, in 1882. Curious about this, I learned that the Näcken, or Nøkken, a water sprite, incubus, and shapeshifter (aka “water horse”), fiddles under waterfalls (as shown in the painting) or bridges to attract female victims. Josephson suffered from schizophrenia from 1888 but did go on to produce more canvases along with two volumes of poetry. A lovely earlier work is his David and Saul of 1878.
Today is the birthday of Hungarian composer and pedagogue Leó Weiner (16 April 1885 – 13 September 1960). I very much like the music of Weiner that I’ve heard (only half a dozen pieces), but his greater significance may lie in his teaching, because his students included conductors Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, Ferenc Fricsay, and Antal Doráti, cellist János Starker, pianists Géza Anda and Andor Foldes, violinist André Gertler, and composers Ferenc Szabó and György Kurtág! I guess that sort of makes him the Hungarian Nadia Boulanger.
Canadian writer Germaine Guèvremont, a Québecoise (1893 – August 21, 1968), wrote for women’s magazines in her youth and published her first short stories in 1938. Her novel Le Survenant (1945) and its 1947 sequel were published together in one volume in English translation as The Outlander in 1950. Le Survenant is illustrated on the stamp that came out in her honor in 1976.
Honorable mention (which is to say, they should have stamps, but don’t yet) goes to Sir Kingsley Amis (16 April 1922 – 22 October 1995) and Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (born 1946).
A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a B.A. in English, Doug Briscoe worked in Boston classical music radio, at WCRB, WGBH, and WBUR, for about 25 years, beginning in 1977. He has the curious distinction of having succeeded Robert J. Lurtsema twice, first as host of WGBH’s weekday morning classical music program in 1993, then as host of the weekend program when Robert J.’s health failed in 2000. Doug also wrote liner notes for several of the late Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings releases as well as program notes for the Boston Classical Orchestra. For the past few years he’s been posting a Facebook “blog” of classical music on stamps of the world, which has now been expanded to encompass all the arts for The Arts Fuse.