Jun 172017

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


By Doug Briscoe

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 6 April 1971) wins the Name Recognition Trophy for June 17 (his Old Style birth date was June 5), and among our other birthday salutes for today are his fellow composer Charles Gounod, M.C. Escher, and James Weldon Johnson. The death of a beloved wife on this date also led to the creation of one of the world’s great monuments.

The artwork on the Monaco Stravinsky stamp, issued for the composer’s centennial in 1982, is based on a photograph taken in 1903, well before Stravinsky had written any of his major works, even before his Opus 1 (Symphony in E-flat). The American 2¢ stamp also came out in 1982, but as part of an ongoing set of “Famous Americans” definitives. (Stravinsky became a US citizen in 1945.) The Ukrainian stamp marked the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. (I also refer you to the Petrushka stamp I posted on June 13. One for The Firebird is coming up on the 25th.)

The oldest stamp here (1944) is the small French one honoring Charles Gounod (17 June 1818 – 17 or 18 October 1893). The Romanian and Albanian stamps were issued in sets involving other composers. Gounod’s most famous work is the opera Faust, as reflected in the very colorful San Marino stamp, again from a larger issue of composers, this time with scenes from their operas. At center is a poster by the graphic artist Jan Lenica (1928-2001) for the 2nd International Poster Biennial Exhibition in Warsaw (1968). This design for a performance of Gounod’s opera won the Gold Medal that year. (My favorite Gounod is the delightful Petite symphonie for winds, with its perky tunes and gorgeous, heartfelt slow movement.)


The fascinating, visually oxymoronic creations of M(aurits) C(ornelis) Escher (17 June 1898 – 27 March 1972) have been delighting everybody—not just art lovers, puzzle lovers, and mathematicians—for decades. A centenary pair of stamps was issued by the Netherlands for his centenary in 1998. Earlier, one of the Dutch graphic artist’s designs was used for a 1981 stamp to mark the 10th International Austrian Mathematics Congress of that year. But I’ll bet you didn’t know (I didn’t) that as early as 1935, Escher had himself been asked to design a stamp for the Air Fund, for what we philatelists called a “semi-postal” stamp, one with a surcharge, in this case supporting national aviation. More characteristic is Escher’s design for a pair of stamps for the 75th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union in 1949. The design uses posthorns, an international symbol for postage stamps, harking back to the days of the post rider, but of course in Escher’s work the posthorns are intertwined. He also made simplified alternate UPU designs for the Dutch colonies of Netherlands Antilles and Surinam that year.

Apart from his notability as a tireless civil rights activist and one of the first leaders of the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) wrote poetry and novels and the lyrics for songs, including the inspiring hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson. The brothers also collaborated on a comic opera, Tolosa (1899), admired by Oscar Hammerstein but apparently never produced. With a keen mind and a sound education, Johnson accomplished much as a teacher, lawyer, diplomat, compiler and editor of Negro Spirituals and poetry, and much more.


And now on to our “lesser” celebrities. The only stamps I could find for painter and architect Giovanni Paolo Panini (17 June 1691 – 21 October 1765) were two of the lovely but quasipostal minisheets from Saõ Tomé. As can seen from them, Panini excelled as a vedutisto, a “view painter” of cityscapes, vistas, and vast interiors, along with landscapes featuring imaginary ruins. Born in Piacenza, Panini (or Pannini) went to Rome at age 20, at first to decorate palaces, and remained there for the rest of his life. The first stamp conflates a portrait of the artist by Louis Gabriel Blanchet with one of Panini’s many views of the Colosseum (1747). The others show The Interior of the Pantheon (c1734), Roman Capriccio: The Pantheon and Other Monuments (1735), Musical feast [given by the Cardinal de La Rochefoucauld in the Teatro Argentina in Rome] (1747), and Interior of St. Peter’s, Rome (c1755). Panini’s sons Giuseppe and Francesco were also artists, Giuseppe an architect, Francesco a painter.

Norwegian writer Henrik Wergeland (17 June 1808 – 12 July 1845) achieved fame with his first publication, a volume of poetry he wrote when he was 21. This was just prior to the July revolution of 1830, which stimulated his political and social activism. He was strong advocate of literacy, established community libraries, addressed poverty, and was in general a tireless fighter for the rights of the people. With a mind of wide-ranging interests, he was also a student of languages, theology, history, and science, a prolific writer whose works occupy some 23 volumes. He died at 37 of the effects of pneumonia and tuberculosis, and thousands of people attended his funeral.


Another writer “of the people” was Australian bush poet Henry Lawson (17 June 1867 – 2 September 1922), seen by some readers as Australia’s greatest short story writer. In childhood Henry had an ear infection that left him completely deaf by the age of fourteen. His mother Louisa was a poet and feminist who edited a women’s paper called The Dawn from 1888 to 1905 and who published her son’s first book. One of the stamps celebrates Lawson’s popular story “The Drover’s Wife” (1892), the tale of a woman bringing up four children in the outback. His most successful collection, though, was While the Billy Boils of 1896, a paradigm of Australian realism representative of Lawson’s terse, punchy style that anticipates Hemingway. His later life was troubled with depression and alcoholism, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 55. His image appeared on the old Australian ten dollar banknote.

In 2008 the United States released a sheet of sixteen stamps showing the industrial designs of husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames. As today is the birthday of Charles Ormond Eames, Jr (June 17, 1907 – August 21, 1978), I thought I’d show half of those stamps now and reserve the other half for Ray’s birthday in December. Charles was an architecture student in his native St. Louis, Missouri, where he opened his own office in 1930. He later worked with Eero Saarinen. In 1941 Eames divorced his first wife and married Bernice “Ray” Kaiser, moving to California, where in 1949 they built their home known as Case Study House #8 (see the upper leftmost of the Eames stamps in the collage). He happens to have been consulting on a project for his native Str. Louis when he succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 71. Other examples of the Eames’s work selected for the stamps include the 1950 Eames storage unit, the 1952 House of Cards building toy, the Hang-It-All accessory of 1953, and (bottom row) four chairs: lounge chair and ottoman (1956), wire mesh chair (1951), the molded plywood chair of 1946, and aluminum group chair (1958).

Dutch illustrator Jenny Dalenoord (June 17, 1918 – October 25, 2013) provided the art work for more than 180 children’s books in addition to her many pieces for children’s magazines. Dalenoord also designed a 1952 set of postage stamps for child welfare. We see the entire set of five.


It was on this day in 1631 that Mumtaz Mahal (born 27 April 1593), empress consort of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, died. For the next twenty-one years work proceeded on her mausoleum, the magificent Taj Mahal. The universally admired building has been seen on many stamps from all over the world. The oldest one dates from the Raj, with the head of Emperor George V; the other two in the top row are more recent issues from India. The Japanese seem to have an unusual philatelic obsession with the Taj Mahal as the country has issued at least four stamps depicting the edifice. Two of my favorites are the beauties from Mali and Spain. Others come from Guernsey, Gibraltar, the Maldives, South Korea, Peru, and Dominica.

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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