The Arts on the Stamps of the World — May 1

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


By Doug Briscoe

We begin today with English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe (May 1, 1764 – September 3, 1820), the first professional architect in the United States. He was born in Leeds (though his German-Dutch mother had been born in Pennsylvania). Latrobe’s father was well-connected, and young Benjamin went to school in Germany from the age of 12, picking up seven or eight languages along the way. Interested in drawing from an early age, he returned to England in 1784 and was apprenticed to Samuel Pepys Cockerell, a fact I mention only because just five days ago we noted the birthday of S. P. Cockerell’s son Charles, the designer of the Ashmolean Museum. After working on a number of architectural and engineering projects, Latrobe emigrated to the United States in 1796. Among his earlier works here was the Bank of Philadelphia, the first Greek Revival building in the United States. Latrobe also designed the Baltimore Basilica, the first Catholic Cathedral built in the U.S., and the Decatur House for naval hero Stephen Decatur. These latter two edifices are shown on stamps from 1979 and 1971 respectively. It’s important to add that Latrobe worked on the central section and low dome of the U.S. Capitol building after its damage in the War of 1812; but I show no stamps of the Capitol because the high dome that is now its most prominent feature was a later addition.

Irish poet James Mangan (Séamus Ó Mangáin; 1 May 1803, Dublin – 20 June 1849) began publishing his verse when he was only fifteen. Like Latrobe, he seems to have taken to languages easily: he studied Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian in school and taught himself German so as to begin making translations (Goethe among them) around 1830. (Some of these so-called “translations”, though, were really his own original work.) Ten years later he was translating from the Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and Irish. After the Great Famine he began writing more politically motivated and patriotic poems. Troubled by depression and some form of mental aberration characterized by irrational fears, he took to drink and opium, wore bizarre clothing, and wasted away. He died of cholera at the age of 46.


Jules Breton (1 May 1827 – 5 July 1906) was born in the Pas-de-Calais. His lifelong love of the region infused much of his painting. He studied in Ghent, Antwerp, and Paris, and tried his hand at historical canvases. Soon he turned to Realist pieces reflecting contemporary rustic life. This trend is seen in the painting that launched his career, The Gleaners (1854; see the Irish stamp, just a coincidence that it follows our paragraph on James Mangan). Breton became enormously popular not only in France but in the United States. His Procession of Pardon, Brittany (1869) is seen on the Cuban stamp, as the original hangs in the Cuban National Museum. His work The Song of the Lark (1884) gave Willa Cather the title for her eponymous novel.

José de Alencar (May 1, 1829 – December 12, 1877) has earned the reputation of being one of the bright lights of 19th-century South American fiction. He practiced law and wrote chronicles of municipal and commercial affairs before producing his first novel in 1856. It was the third, O Guarani (1857), that made his name as a novelist. This was the first book of his “Indianist Trilogy” dealing with the lives of indigenous peoples and was made into an opera by the Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes in 1870. The second book in the series, unrelated in plot to the other two, was Iracema (1865), cited on the postage stamp from 1965. Alencar was a close friend of the writer Machado de Assis and, as a politician, an opponent of abolition. Sometimes he used the pseudonym Erasmo.

Another 19th-century writer, but one from the Old World, was the Belgian Roman Catholic priest Guido Gezelle (1 May 1830 – 27 November 1899). In his poems, mostly mystical in nature, though later more impressionistic, he used a dialect of West Flemish. A great Anglophile, he translated Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, among many other works.

Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (May 1, 1872 – May 8, 1960) was also a violinist. In the 1950s he conducted some of his own music in the first classical stereo recordings ever made in Sweden. The main theme of the first of his three Swedish Rhapsodies is very well known—the tune is heard in the clarinet within the first few seconds of the score. Alfvén (I’m told the pronunciation is “ahl-VEE-en”) produced mainly orchestral music, including five symphonies. He was also an active watercolorist and wrote a four-volume autobiography.


While Alfvén’s instrument was the violin, Jón Leifs (born Jón Þorleifsson in 1899) began with the piano, but he turned quickly to conducting and studied composition with Busoni in Leipzig. With the Hamburg Philharmonic he led the first orchestra concerts ever heard in Iceland (1926!). His music is often inspired by the landscape and sagas of his homeland. Leifs helped establish the Performing Rights Society of Iceland in 1948. He died twenty years later, on 30 July 1968. A lot of his music can be found on the Bis label, and an Icelandic film about Leifs, Tears of Stone, was made in 1995.

American singer Kate Smith (May 1, 1907 – June 17, 1986), it is said, did not speak until she was four, but thereafter took to singing with a will. Born in Virginia and bred in Washington, D.C., she started performing in Boston and Atlantic City before moving on to Broadway. She made records as early as 1926 and began appearing on radio in 1931, eventually becoming known as The First Lady of Radio. She had her own television programs in the 1950s. Now, for a nickel, guess the year in which Kate Smith became strongly associated with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”. Wrong. It was at a Philadelphia Flyers hockey game in 1969.

French artist Jean Delpech (1 May 1916 – 1988) was born in Hanoi 101 years ago today and grew up there. Delpech went to high school with Võ Nguyên Giáp. After study at the School of Fine Arts in Hanoi, he moved at the age of twenty to Paris and began teaching. In addition to his work as a painter, engraver, and illustrator, Delpech made forged documents for the resistance during the war. He also designed a number of postage stamps, his first being the one for Gabon showing a sailing ship (1968); he also created eleven stamps for the French Antarctic, of which we see one, this time a modern ship, and ten for France, of which we offer two.


Moldovan musician Gheorghe Mustea turns 66 today. He has conducted orchestras around the world and is the composer of works in many genres: opera, symphonic, choral, chamber, film music, even some pop. The subjects of his two operas Alexander Lăpușneanu and Stephen the Great are prominent figures of Moldovan history.

Speaking of opera, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro had its première on this date in 1786 at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Both of the Figaro souvenir sheets (Grenada Grenadines and Ghana) appeared in late 1992, while the French stamp between them comes from a 2006 souvenir sheet devoted to costumes (!) from Mozart operas.

Since we are stampcentric here, it would be remiss of me not to mention that on this date in 1840, the Penny Black, the first official adhesive postage stamp in the world, was issued in the United Kingdom. Having mentioned the fact, it would be unforgivable not to show one.

Deserving of a stamp, surely, is Joseph Addison (1 May 1672 – 17 June 1719) of Addison and Steele fame, and sure to get one someday, I’ll wager, is Joseph Heller (1923 – December 12, 1999). Meanwhile, happy birthday to Joanna Lumley!

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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