The Arts on the Stamps of the World — May 14

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


By Doug Briscoe

The number of birthday people on stamps today is relatively small, but all but one of them are household names: Thomas Gainsborough, Otto Klemperer, Sidney Bechet, George Lucas, and Cate Blanchett. Odd man out—for most of us—is Portuguese ballet dancer Fernando Lima.

Thomas Gainsborough was baptized on 14 May 1727 and was so gifted at drawing and painting that his parents let him go from his native Surrey to London at just 13 for professional instruction. Although he preferred painting landscapes to portraits he is better known for the latter genre and seems to be exclusively thus represented on stamps. One of his innovations was to place the sitters in carefully situated environments, as is plainly seen in his picture of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews (c1748–50), seen on stamps from Nicaragua and the UAR state of Umm al Qiwain. Other examples include Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas (1783-84 ) on a US letter-writing stamp and the famous Blue Boy (1770) on stamps from three different places. (The identity of the Blue Boy, by the way, is putatively Jonathan Buttall, son of a hardware merchant. You may be surprised to learn that the original hangs in the Henry E. Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California.) In the bottom row we have Lavinia the Milkmaid (1786), Lady in Blue (c1780), Mrs. Sarah Siddons (1785), and another Nicaraguan stamp of a detail from the portrait of the ballerina Giovanna Baccelli (c1782). Thomas Gainsborough died of cancer on 2 August 1788. His birth house in Sudbury still stands.


The great German-Jewish conductor Otto Klemperer (1885 – 6 July 1973) studied with Hans Pfitzner, was a friend of Mahler, and was the father of Col. Klink. The diarist Victor Klemperer was a cousin. Otto Klemperer left Germany for the US in 1933 and became a US citizen in 1937, but after various difficulties and disappointments left in 1954. One of his greatest struggles was with cyclothymic bipolar disorder, which exacerbated his personal and professional relationships. He is still considered one of the greatest of conductors, despite his much-cited tendency to extremely slow tempos (“Beethoven’s Eroica, complete on three LPs!”).

Born in New Orleans, jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet (1897 – May 14, 1959) also had something of a difficult personality. He was in France with Josephine Baker in 1925 and, after much disappointment in the US, returned to that country, where he was always enormously popular, in his final years. So it’s not surprising that one of his stamps was issued by France. Bechet died on his 62nd birthday.


Portuguese dancer and choreographer Fernando Lima (14 May 1928 – 17 August 2005) studied engineering before choosing dance. He studied with Margarida de Abreu and in Paris. Lima was the founder of the first Portuguese ballet company, Ballet-Concerto, in 1956, later reestablished as the Ballets de Lisboa.

Happy birthday to “Mr. Star Wars”, George Lucas (born May 14, 1944), and Australian actress Cate Blanchett (1969). In 2007, the USPS came out with a whole sheet of fifteen Star Wars stamps. Cate Blanchett is one of four Australian actors to be honored on a set of Australian stamps, also from 2007.

Today is also the 139th anniversary of the opening of the Cincinnati Music Hall on May 14, 1878. Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and Gluck’s opera Alceste were performed before an audience of some 6,000 people. For the centenary, just three years after the building had been recognized as a National Historic Landmark, the US Postal Service issued a postal card from which I show the corner.

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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1 Comment

  1. Jeanne Ommerle on May 14, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    Another wonderful day in stamps! Thank you.

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