Sunday 15 April 2012

Dickens Bicentenary

Royal Mail has released pictures of two of the stamps that will be issued by them on 19 June 2012 to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, possibly the greatest novelist in the English language. There will be a set of six stamps and a miniature sheet which itself will contain 4 more values. The designs displayed here show Mr Pickwick from "The Pickwick Papers", originally serialised in monthly parts as "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club" from March 1836 to November 1837.
The second design depicts Nicholas Nickleby giving the vicious headmaster, Mr Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall School, a taste of his own medicine. This stamp is one of the four values which comprise the miniature sheet, the illustrations being taken from the original work of Hablot Knight Brown, "Phiz", who illustrated ten books by Dickens. Surely this must be the most violent scene ever depicted on a British stamp, showing as it does Nickleby's vicious assault on Squeers (yes, I know many people would feel Squeers deserved what Nicholas did to him, but really, is this scene of an act of grievous bodily harm quite suitable for a stamp design?).
The designs of the upcoming set are very much in line with those issued by the British Post Office on 3 June 1970 to commemorate the centenary of Dickens' death but what a remarkable contrast they are in face value being only 5d (2p) each - by the time the new stamps come along it will cost 60p (3000% more) to post a small first class letter! The designs depicted Pickwick with his wide-boy servant, Sam Weller; Mr Micawber with his family from "David Copperfield", Dickens' eighth novel published in serial form from 1849 - 50 ; Betsy Trotwood and David, also from "David Copperfield" and Oliver Twist and a Union Work House official in the famous scene where Oliver asked "Please Sir, I want more" ("Oliver Twist, published 1837 -39). Unlike poor Oliver, Royal Mail is getting more - a lot more - when it comes to postage rates.
Several British colonies also issued stamps in 1970 to commemorate Dickens' death anniversary. I have recently reported that the Turks And Caicos Islands is to issue stamps to commemorate the bicentenary but as yet I have not seen an illustration of the forthcoming designs. I fear they will not match the wonderful stamps issued on 17 June 1970 which were beautifully printed by De La Rue not only by lithography but also in intaglio. Each design featured Dickens himself and a scene from one of his novels - Oliver asking for more on the 1c value, Scrooge meeting Marley's ghost (A Christmas Carol, published 1843) on the 3c value, Pickwick with Sam and Mrs. Bardell on the 15c and, on the 30c, Little Nell and her grandfather (The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens' fourth novel, published 1840, which famously is said to have had crowds gathering at the docks in America waiting for the latest installment and shouting out "Is Little Nell Alive?" when the previous episode had left the character at Death's door; some people were less impressed by the melodrama of the story, Oscar Wilde quipped that "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Nell without laughing).
The Guernsey Post Office has also announced that it will issue stamps with an "Alderney" inscription to commemorate the bicentenary on 8 May 2012. The six values depict scenes from "Oliver Twist" taken from the original illustrations by George Cruikshank:- the values will be 36p, 47p, 48p, 52p, 61p and 65p.
One can only hope that other countries participating in the philatelic commemoration of Dickens' bicentenary can be a little more original in choice of design as well as subject matter (it looks as though Pickwick and Oliver Twist, like the unfortunate character of Nancy in that book, will be done to death by the time the various postal authorities have finished). To hark back to 1970, there were some truly marvellous designs produced by several territories. The British Virgin Islands featured "A Tale of Two Cities" (Dickens' second historical novel and twelfth novel, published 1859) on their 5c value, Oliver Twist (again), asking for more as usual, on the 10c value and Pip meeting Magwitch from "Great Expectations" (13th novel, published 1860 - 1) on the 25c value.
My favourite set of all, however, consisted of the extremely effective and original designs produced by the brilliant Jennifer Toombs for the Cayman Islands. The four values, issued on 17 June 1970, took the form of Dickens characters depicted as silhouettes on inn signs. Coupled with the originality of design was also the subject matter - no Pickwick or Twist here - on the 1c was the eponymous Barnaby Rudge (1st historical novel and 5th novel, published as a weekly serial in 1841); on the 12c the gruesome nurse, Sairey Gamp, from "Martin Chuzzlewit (6th novel, published 1843 - 44); on the 20c were Micawber and David Copperfield and on the 40c value was "The Marchioness", a character in "The Old Curiosity Shop".
Among other Commonwealth territories participating in the 1970 commemorations were Dominica (scenes from "A Christmas Carol"), St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, Antigua, St. Lucia and Barbuda which produced two values depicting the ubiquitous Oliver Twist, this time with the villainous Fagin and his gang (20c) and Dickens himself with Little Nell and her grandfather (75c).
For once, we are awaiting a series of new issues for a very worthwhile and important anniversary and we look forward to a range of interesting stamps from The Commonwealth.

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