Jun 152017

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


By Doug Briscoe

Edvard Grieg is top banana today, and we salute Erroll Garner, a certain noble lady who sat for a certain famous portrait, our usual motley assortment of painters and poets, and the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Edvard Grieg was born June 15, 1843 and has little competition for the place of Norway’s greatest composer. The orange Norwegian stamp at the top, issued 1983, shows the score of the splendid Piano Concerto (everybody knows the opening drumroll and piano chords. Apart from that work and one or two other large-scale compositions, Grieg in my view was best at creating beautiful miniatures like Morning Mood, Aase’s Death, and Solveig’s Song from his incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt; the movements of his exquisite Lyric and Holberg Suites, and many more. The beautiful Monaco stamp, issued for Grieg’s sesquicentennial in 1993, depicts a baton-wielding mountain troll (perhaps conducting the famous “In the Hall of the Mountain King”); the written music is the string introduction to the heart-rending Solveig’s Song. The oldest stamp here is the dark blue one second from the left, one of a group of four, all with the same design but with different denominations and in different colors, produced in 1943 for the centenary; the Russian stamp came out in 1957 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death.

The presence here of non-artist Lisa del Giocondo (née Gherardini; June 15, 1479 – July 15, 1542) needs no explanation. Because of her married name she is known among the Italians as La Gioconda, and among the French as La Joconde (which is how I once overheard a tour guide at the Louvre describe the painting to a group of probably mostly unsuspecting tourists). We, of course, know her by another name.


Although he never learned to read music, Erroll Garner (June 15, 1923 [or maybe 1921] – January 2, 1977) was in all likelihood a child prodigy. His brothers and sisters all took piano lessons, but little Erroll could sit down and mimic the teacher’s playing by ear. (Another example, one that took place years later, involved Garner’s attendance of an Emil Gilels recital, following which Garner was reported to have gone home and repeated almost the entire concert from memory.) He was only seven years old when he started playing on the radio and was a pro by the age of eleven, making his first records about ten years later. He made a lot of them, specializing in swing and ballads (notably “Misty”, which was played for Jessica Walter). He was a favorite on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and died of emphysema-related heart failure at age 53.

Two of today’s painters both died on a June 15th: the earlier of them was Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (or Beltraffio; 1467–1516), who, as it happens, worked into the studio of the artist who painted the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (see above). I was able to learn nothing about the portrait on the Bulgarian stamp. The Mongolian one offers his Madonna and Child of c1500, not to be confused with his earlier and better known Madonna of the Rose (1480) in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan. Boltroffio’s masterpiece is held to be the Pala Casio (1500).


The later painter was the Frenchman Guillaume Courtois (aka Guglielmo Cortese), called Il Borgognone or Le Bourguignon (“the Burgundian”). Born in 1628, he went with his father and brothers, with one of whom, Jacques, he would often collaborate, to Italy when he was about ten. Guillaume was mostly active in Rome and died on this date in 1679. Although the works we see on the stamps from Malawi and Sierra Leone are all Madonnas, Courtois mainly painted other biblical as well as historical and mythological subjects. The Malawian pair show his Madonna del Certosino (Madonna of the Carthusians, 1486-94) and Madonna and Child with God the Father and Angels (1488-94). These and the Madonna of the Veil (1495-1515) of the Sierra Leonean stamp are all three housed in the Pinacoteca di Brera.

Kobayashi Issa (June 15, 1763 – January 5, 1828) is one of the ” Great Four” Japanese haiku masters. He wrote over 20,000 of them, 230 on the firefly alone (150 on the mosquito!), and he routinely provided his own illustrations to accompany them. Besides the haiku, he also wrote a diary known as Last Days of Issa’s Father and an autobiographical book entitled The Spring of My Life. At one point he lost his home to a fire and was reduced to living in his storehouse, which is preserved today and seen on the stamp. Of this same fire, he wrote: “Hotarubi mo amaseba iya haya kore wa haya.” (“If you leave so much/As a firefly’s glimmer,/Good Lord! Good Heavens!”). Ignorant of kanji, I can only wonder whether the text shown on the stamp is that haiku.

Russian painter Mitrofan Grekov (aka Martyshchenko; 15 June [O.S. 3 June] 1882 – 27 November 1934) served in the Red Cavalry during the Revolution, and his canvases recalling his experiences and observations were much treasured in the early days of the USSR. He basically founded the tradition of Soviet battle pictures. His three stamps depict Trumpeters of the 1st Cavalry (painting 1934, stamp 1957), Tachanka (a horse-drawn coach mounted with a machinegun, painting 1933, stamp 1982), Tachanka Carriage Race (1925/1969), and The First Cavalry (stamp: 1967). The former two stamps honor Grekov, the latter two the military unit.


Isabelle Sandy was the nom de plume of Isabelle Dieudonnée Marie Fourcade (15 June 1884 – 8 May 1975). In her six volumes of poems and forty novels, she wrote mostly about her native region of Andorra. Her output also includes a number of books for young girls. Her first success and best known novel is Chantal Daunoy (1917). Sandy has twice been recognized on stamps, a 1996 issue under the Spanish postal authority of Andorra, and a 2016 stamp from the French administration.

Ramón López Velarde (June 15, 1888 – June 19, 1921) is considered by some as Mexico’s national poet. As a seminary student and devout Catholic he was at first dismissive of modernism. Later he experienced, dare I say, an epiphany on reading the modernist works of Amado Nervo and Andrés González Blanco. He never abandoned his faith, however, as evinced by the title (and, of course, the content) of his first published collection, La sangre devota (The Pious Blood, 1916). 1919 saw the publication of Zozobra, by consensus his finest work. Velarde died, possibly of pneumonia, maybe of syphilis, shortly after turning thirty-three.

The Romanian-born Jewish Surrealist sculptor and painter Victor Brauner (15 June 1903 – 12 March 1966) held his first show in Bucharest in 1924 and went the following year to Paris, to which he would return in 1927 and where he would settle in 1930. For his first exhibition in that city (1934) André Breton wrote the introduction to the catalogue. (Brauner made a fine portrait of Breton in 1934.) In 1938, while trying to break up a fight between the Spanish Surrealist painters Oscar Domínguez and Esteban Francés Brauner lost his left eye. During the German occupation he fled Paris for Perpignan. For his centenary in 2003 Romania issued not only a single commemorative stamp for him but also a generous collection of ten stamps of his works, from which set we see Landscape from Dobrogea (c1928-37) and Courteous Passivity (1929-35). I love his none-too-flattering portrait of Hitler from 1934. Another Brauner reproduction, The Object That Dreams II (L’Object qui rêve II, 1938) was issued by Romania the next year (2004).


Wilbert Awdry (15 June 1911 – 21 March 1997) is the man who created Thomas the Tank Engine. His inspiration derived from his own childhood, when in his bed he would listen to the trains of the Great Western Railway and assign personalities to them. But he didn’t start writing the Railway Series pieces until 1943, as stories for his son Christopher (no, not Christopher Robin). Awdry wrote 26 books in the series, and Christopher has added more. The UK came out with two different sets of Thomas the Tank Engine stamps for Awdry’s centennial in 2011. There was also a set from the Isle of Man (not shown).

The Pakistani Urdu writer Ibn-e-Insha (born Sher Muhammad Khan on 15 June 1927, died 11 January 1978) was a poet and author of travelogues especially appreciated for his humor. He also served as an administrator for various organizations and as a newspaper columnist. As a worker for the UN he traveled the world, mostly throughout Asia, and besides his volumes of poetry and collections of travel pieces, he translated a collection of Chinese poems into Urdu.

Two years ago there was an explosion of stamps marking the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. It was on June 15th, 1215 that King John put his seal to the document. (The sole American stamp is much older, dating back to the 750th anniversary in 1965.)

A birthday greeting to English actor, musician, writer, and theater director Simon Callow (born 15 June 1949).

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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