Great Britain was the seat of empire, and GB never had to put its name on its stamps — because it was first, in 1840. (Can you believe it?) This set — the Queen Victoria Jubilee Issue — was released in 1887, with added values in later years. It set the standard for issues in colonies around the world. I include two stamps from the set,with considerable variations — if you can make them out under the heavy cancels. I particularly like the royal purple of the 2 1/2 d.
Notice in the images that follow, how many of these stamps, issued on five continents at roughly the same time, have a similar design (you might try enlarging them on your screen for even closer views of these beauties; then you will be able to appreciate the many subtle and not-so-subtle differences among them). This has to be one of earliest manifestations of globalization. To borrow a concept from columnist Thomas Friedman, the British already were busily “flattening” the world in the 1890s. Below is a gallery of the stamps pictured in the map above, with additions and comments when called for …
Two predominant designs were used in Jubilee stamps from the Americas. These from St. Vincent show one design, with a crimped border around the bust. Notice the hand-written cancels. These tend to lower the value of the stamp — the preferred cancel is a circular date stamp in black ink — but the handwriting is intriguing. What does it mean?
These Jubilee stamps, above, from three Caribbean/Central American colonies are identical in design — though the tablet border and numeral style change for the British Honduras set. Notice, below, a similar looking British Honduras stamp with a circular border of the cameo portrait — one replicated in a number of other colonies. Why the change? Which border is better — crimped or circular? You decide …
Oddball variations, below. The stamp at left, from Jamaica, still has the bust-portrait and the number tablet, but otherwise is very different in design (just wait until you see Natal, a little further on …)
At right you have all the elements of a Victoria jubilees design in a stamp from British Guiana — but no Victoria! Instead, there is the badge of the colony. Why? You’d have to consult the mandarins at Whitehall on that one …
Sidebar: glimpse at the end of an era. Below is one of the final portraits of Queen Victoria engraved on a stamp. Caught in a reflective mood, the queen seems to be staring fixedly into the light — the future? The celestial lumens? It is a remarkable portrait of the ungainly queen. In real life, she could seem as awkward and bad tempered as the famous Lewis Carroll caricature in Alice’s adventures … But on stamps she was never less than regal.
Interesting aside: There was a problem with the first Canadian set (above left), even though it was a bold new design for 1897 and still has a clean, startlingly modern look. The problem: There was no number, just letters and four maple-leaf ornaments engraved in the corners. The second set (right), issued in 1898, took away two of the maple leaves and replaced them with numbers in the lower corners. It seems postal authorities overestimated the literacy of the population. Maybe it was also a French-English thing. Just guessing.
By now these Jubilee designs should be getting pretty familiar to you. Oh yes, notice the similarities between the Natal stamp and Jamaica, above. Well, not so similar when you actually compare them … These stamps span the African continent, from the Atlantic nations of Gambia and Sierra Leone, across the vastness of Northern Nigeria, to the south African colonies of Natal and Zululand.
Below are a couple more samples, of Jubilee stamps — one from Ceylon/Sri Lanka off the east coast of India, the other from thousands of miles to the east and the Straits Settlements of Singapore and Malaya. Underneath is an Indian stamp from 1899 that is not the same design at all. But it’s a classic late portrait, so I’m including it, just for fun.
Australia and British Oceania
For some reason the omnibus Jubilee design memo did not reach Australia, the Antipodes (I think that means New Zealand) or any of the micronesian colonies, protectorates, condominiums and what-have-you strewn across the south Pacific. Since I’m not a big collector of this area, I only managed to scrounge up a few battered examples of late Victorian philately from down under — including Victoria on Victoria! (Today Australia’s smallest and richest state, Victoria once was a separate colony and issued its own stamps from 1850 to the early 1900s. During that time it produced at least 50 original portraits of Victoria on stamps. Some of them, I must say, are quite primitive! It’s fun to check them out on eBay. Oddly, the last stamps from the colony of Victoria pictured the queen’s son and heir to the throne, the new King Edward VII, ruining the eponymous philatelic fun — but at the same time injecting a gender-bending element: Edward-Victoria!
Same stamp design on five continents. Now let’s play a parlor game of spot-the-similarities among the eight stamps appearing below: 1) All feature the Victoria bust; 2) in a circular border containing the country name and amount; 3) all letters, no numbers … Now, enjoy the variations in these delicate designs — do any of them have the same border flourishes, for example? This harmonious “set” of nine stamps actually comes from five separate continents — including Mauritius, which I include just as an illustration because I don’t have that particular one — yet.
Mid-Victorian design similarities, 1860s-1880s. Another round of spot-the-similarities, anyone? Eight more stamps from earlier in the Victorian era, spanning three continents, are depicted below. They share the iconic portrait of the queen, a round border and a bar below with the value. Look how closely Lagos (Africa) resembles Dominica, Tobago and St. Christopher (Caribbean). Not … quite … the … same, though.
Round three. Try to find any design differences among the 10 beauties pictured below. The new challenge for this page is inspired by Sesame Street, I think. Which of these things belong together, which of these things is not quite the same? Or something like that.
Spoiler: Check the Trinidad stamp, which looks like it should have the standard Victoria portrait, but instead uses the badge of the colony, or “Britannia,” if you will. What gives? What next? A “portrait” of a giraffe on a stamp from Tanganyika?
I kid you not. At first I thought this giraffe set from the British Mandate of Tanganyika was an anti-monarchist spoof. But it’s real enough. The series appeared in 1922. A set with George V’s portrait didn’t follow until 1927. The stamps are gorgeous little engravings, colored with brilliant inks of carmine, green, orange and dark violet that contrast deliciously with the jet-black centers. Still, it’s a shock to see the spot normally reserved for a Royal be usurped by a dopey-looking giraffe. Why, it borders on insubordination! This set allows one to imagine at least some of the mandarins of the Colonial Office had a sense of humor.
Early Victorian stamp design similarities — 1850s-1860s. Most British stamps from Victorian era originated with the cameo portrait of Princess Victoria created by William Wyon in 1834, pictured here. That image appeared on a medal commemorating the new queen’s visit to London in 1837. It also became the basis for the world’s first stamp — the “Penny Black” of 1840 (see below). The stamp’s designer, Sir Rowland Hill, picked the rough sketch by Henry Corbould (I’m still looking for that sketch), and engravers Charles Heath and his son Frederick produced the stamp. The image, subject to minor revision over the years, and illustrated by the early stamps pictured below, would remain in continuous use in successive sets issued in Great Britain and the empire until Victoria’s death in 1901.
The Chalon head
It’s hard to believe the portrait at right is of the same woman who was portrayed in those stamps above as a classical bust or an aged dowager. In this painting, she appears young and winsome, swallow-necked and elegant, with a coy, doe-like beauty.
“Chalons” are prized among British Colony stamp collectors because they are generally early and rare — not to mention beautiful engravings. The stamps, some of which are pictured below, appeared starting in the British empire in the early 1850s. The first was Canada’s provinces (1851), then Nova Scotia (1853), Tasmania/Van Diemensland (1855), New Zealand (1855), The Bahamas (1859), Natal (1859) Grenada (1860), New Brunswick and Queensland (1860).
In most colonies, the stamps were replaced as Victoria aged. Canada marked Victoria’s sexagenary in 1897 with a startling pair of side-by-side cameos of the queen “then” (the Chalon head of 1837) and “now” (the plump old dowager). The same person? Impossible! In Queensland (now Australia), you could still buy a high-value stamp with a Chalon head at the post office as late as 1912, more than a decade after Victoria’s death.
Take a second look at the portrait in the Nova Scotia stamp, at right — the green 8 and 1/2-center from 1860 (value: a few bucks at most). On double-take, it’s clearly not based on the Chalon head. My bet is on the Winterhalter portrait of 1859, reproduced below.
Reality check: Here is an apparent photo-like record of the marriage of Victoria and Albert in London, Feb. 10, 1840. The close-up below is strikingly immediate, bringing you face to face with an intimate moment more than a century-and-a-half ago. … Queen Victoria looks, well, short and dumpy. She has a big nose and a receding chin. She is, well, homely. Perhaps such realistic depictions don’t do her justice. Or perhaps the engraver’s art is, well, artful. There is no mistaking her resolve in this image as she gazes at her prince. They were by all accounts a happy couple, in love and devoted to each other for the 21 years allotted them before Albert succumbed to stomach ailments and typhoid fever. They had nine children. Victoria would continue on as queen until her death in 1901, becoming the longest-reigning British monarch in modern history — that is, until her great-great-grandaughter Elizabeth broke her record in 2015.
The British Empire’s fourth dimension — through time in stamps