Jun 022017

An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.


By Doug Briscoe

Two titans of Victorian/Edwardian England share this June 2nd birthday: Thomas Hardy and Edward Elgar. We also acknowledge poets from Denmark and Austria and a Japanese painter of the late 17th century, along with Johnny Weissmuller and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

The great Thomas Hardy (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) gets only a single anniversary stamp, but it’s one more than Elgar gets. Historically Great Britain has been singularly reticent in honoring its great artists on stamps: nothing for Byron, Shelley, Marlowe and Ben Jonson and the other Elizabethans (except Shakespeare, of course), Alexander Pope, the Restoration dramatists, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, John Dowland, and so on and so forth. That tendency has begun to reverse itself in recent years, and in 1990 (which to me is recent) the sesquicentennial of Hardy’s birth was recognized with this stamp. Readers who know Hardy only through his magnificent novels may be surprised to learn that he regarded himself as a poet first and a novelist second. Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Winter Words puts Hardy to music beautifully.

Incredible as it may seem, other than the stamp shown below, which is merely one of a set of four representing popular British orchestral works on nature themes, the UK has never* issued one honoring Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 23 February 1934). The other items of this 1985 set are Handel’s Water Music, Holst’s Planets, and Delius’s tone poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, and for Elgar his song cycle Sea Pictures was chosen. It’s one of my favorite Elgar compositions, a set of five songs for voice and orchestra that I think is among the finest and most beautiful of Elgar’s works. The consensus is that Janet Baker’s recording with John Barbirolli, made in the mid-60s, remains the best one. [Addendum: Unbeknownst to me when I wrote this item, Arts Fuse contributor Jonathan Blumhofer's latest piece in his series  Rethinking the Repertoire just happens to be about the Sea Pictures!]

I might add that after having had a copy of James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel Gerontius on my shelves for many years I finally read it last year. It’s a reimagination of Elgar’s little known journey to Brazil in 1923. I find it a work of great eloquence and reflective beauty.


Danish poet and novelist Karl Gjellerup (2 June 1857 – 13 October 1919) appears on both his stamps together with his compatriot Henrik Pontoppidan because the two men shared the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1917. As a young firebrand Gjellerup wrote novels about atheism and free love. Subsequently he broke with naturalism and embraced romanticism, and in later years he became fascinated with Buddhism and Asian culture generally. His novel The Pilgrim Kamanita (1906) was so well received in Thailand that a translation was used in school textbooks. His final novel, The Holiest Animal (1919), was a comic allegory about life after death for members of the animal kingdom. Strongly Germanophile, Gjellerup lived in Germany from 1892, supporting the country during World War I, and is thought of by many Danes as more of a German than a Danish writer.

The art of Japanese painter Ogata Kōrin, who was born in 1658 and died on June 2, 1716, is much represented on stamps of his country. He was an artist of the Rinpa school, which had been created in early 17th century Kyoto, Kōrin’s birthplace. He and his younger brother Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743), a potter and painter, resurrected and consolidated the style, which came to be named for Kōrin (“Rinpa” is derived from the last syllable of his name.) It experienced a further revival in the 19th century. First we see a 1969 pair of stamps recreating Kōrin’s Red and White Plum Blossoms from a pair of screens. In the next row are Peacock (1975 stamp), Irises (1970), and a Yatsuhashi design, Iris and Bridge (1955). At bottom right, perhaps unexpectedly, is a 1959 Soviet stamp honoring Kōrin. You can see a Kōrin screen, Waves at Matsushima, at the MFA.

Admittedly a minor figure (but, hey, there’s a stamp for him), Norbert Hanrieder (2 June 1842 – 14 October 1913) was an Austrian priest and poet who wrote in dialect. He was one of the founders of a Catholic weekly and began his writing career with the publication of Pictures of Folk Life in the Mühl Region (Bilder aus dem Volksleben des Mühlviertels, 1895). Weuß net mehr.

Johnny Weissmuller was born Johann Peter Weißmüller on this date in 1904. His parents were ethnic Germans living in what today is Romania (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). They passed through Ellis Island when he was a baby. He took up swimming only as a means of therapy for his polio! He went on to set more than fifty world records and earn five Olympic gold medals. He played Tarzan in twelve movies and Jungle Jim in thirteen more. Married five times, he died from pulmonary edema on 20 January 1984. A Romanian stamp honored him on his centenary; the others, which we have already shown on Maureen O’Sullivan’s birthday last month, celebrate the Tarzan movies.

Yesterday, in case you missed it, was Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood’s birthday, and today is the birthday of the group’s drummer (since 1963) Charlie Watts (born 2 June 1941), whose stamp comes from the same Austrian block of four. (We’ll see Mick and Keith in due time.) Not only have Wood and Watts worked together as musicians, both were trained in art, and Watts designed a number of the Rolling Stones album covers.


Alban Berg died before completing the third act of his opera Lulu, but he had prepared a suite of music from the opera that was performed in 1934 in Berlin under Erich Kleiber. (The preparation of the suite was due in part to the impossibility of putting the opera before the public under a Nazi administration. Even the performance of the Suite alone compelled Kleiber’s resignation and later departure from Germany.) The last two movements of the Lulu Suite are drawn from the incomplete Act Three, so when the opera was finally premièred by the Zürich Opera on this date in 1937, eighty years ago, those two movements were presented as an epilogue. In this form the opera was presented for the next four decades until a new completion by Friedrich Cerha was published in 1979. Cerha’s version was a resounding success, and its first recording, under the late Pierre Boulez with Teresa Stratas in the title role, won a Gramophone Award that same year. The stamp comes from a set issued by the Yemen Arab Republic in 1971 in anticipation of the Munich Olympics; the set shows scenes from operas staged at Munich’s Cuvilliés Theatre.

As a sort of appendix I include a proposed design for a British Elgar stamp, one, however, that never went into print.

And what if the designer of the produced set had used the “Enigma Variations” instead of “Sea Pictures” as an inspiration? The result might have looked like this.

*Addendum: Since posting this piece I have learned of the existence of another Elgar stamp, one issued by the Isle of Man in 2006. You can see a copy here.

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.


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