By Fred Baumann
As noted lately in Linn’s and most media outlets in the western world, on Sept. 9 the reign of Queen Elizabeth II became longer than that of any other monarch in British history. It surpassed the mark of 63 years and 216 days on the throne set by her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
Queen Elizabeth II also has spent far more of her life on British North America postage stamps than any other member of the royal family: 83 years (1932-2015), versus only 51 for Queen Victoria (1851-1902).
This review does not include the many collectible tagging, booklet and minor varieties, Official overprints, or portraits used on postal stationery, some of which differ markedly from their adhesive counterparts.
Even eliminating all these, I count 95 face-different stamps, including the one marking her historic reign issued Sept. 9.
The first of these was a 6¢ stamp from Newfoundland in 1932 (Scott 192), engraved from a photograph made by Marcus Adams in 1929 when the princess was just 3½ years old.
In the nearby illustration, this 1932 stamp is shown on the left of a trio of blue portraits of the princess on stamps from England’s oldest colony, which became Canada’s last province when it joined in 1949.
The stamp in the center shows the princess at age 12 (Scott 247), while the one at right was issued on her 21st birthday in 1947 (269).
In this column, I am focusing on definitives showing the queen and will leave the rest — commemorating royal visits, anniversaries and various milestones of the monarchy — for a later column.
After the death in 1952 of King George VI at the age of 56, Elizabeth immediately became queen, although it would be another 16 months before she was formally crowned.
Work to design a new definitive picturing the queen began within a week of her accession as monarch. Selected for the design was a three-quarter face photographic portrait by renowned Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, which Elizabeth herself approved.
The first Queen Elizabeth II definitives were issued May 1, 1953. Although Karsh’s photograph was warm and appealing, the engraved rendering failed to capture these elusive qualities, and the stamps failed to find favor with the public.
The 1¢ brown denomination (Scott 325) is shown nearby. To its right is a 2¢ green definitive (Scott 338) from the series that replaced it, selected by a Post Office Department mindful of the chilly reception of the Karsh issue.
This time a right-facing image was carefully chosen from the now-famous 1952 shoot by British photographer Dorothy Wilding, picturing a smiling queen in the tiara that had been a beloved wedding gift to her from her mother in 1947.
Swiftly introduced in 1954, these Wilding definitives would remain in use for almost a decade, and were as well-regarded in Canada as their counterparts had been in Great Britain.
Beginning in 1963, a new definitive series modestly introduced Canadian content to the nation’s basic postage. Queen Elizabeth gamely played along, not only sitting twice for Montreal artist Ernst Roch to complete his left-facing profile, but commenting favorably on the simple, elegant result, which was in use on stamps for the next five years.
The cleanly stylized queen against a background of bold color gave the new horizontally formatted stamps their name, the Cameo Issue.
The Canadian content consisted of adding to each denomination a tiny icon in the top-left corner to represent a key natural resource and national industry: crystals for mining on the 1¢; a tree for forestry on the 2¢; a fish for Canada’s fisheries on the purple 3¢ (Scott 403, shown with this column); a transmission tower for hydroelectric energy on the 4¢, and the ripe head of a stalk of wheat for agriculture on the 5¢.
Canada celebrated the centennial of self-government in 1967 with a recently minted flag to wave, a royal visit, the Expo 67 world’s fair in Montreal, and a new set of Centennial definitives.
Formatted like the Cameos, the stamps used the same photo of Elizabeth II by Anthony Buckley of London as the Royal Visit commemorative later that year (Scott 471). In place of the simplicity of the Cameos, however, the Centennials used engravings to honor Canada’s regions.
On the 1¢ a dog sled symbolized the high north; the 2¢ pictured a totem pole of the Pacific coast; a combine and an oil derrick represented the prairie provinces on the 3¢; a ship in a lock on the 4¢ carmine rose (pictured, Scott 456) was the image for the Great Lakes of central Canada; while lobster traps and a boat on the 5¢ stood for the maritime provinces of Canada’s Atlantic coast.
The 7¢ and 8¢ Centennials that followed to keep up with rate increases in 1971-72 pictured various means of modern transportation and Ottawa’s Library of Parliament, respectively.
Affordable, fascinating and available in a wide array of formats, booklets and tagging varieties, Centennial definitives have been eagerly mulled over and sought after by several generations of specialists. However, they mark the end of the richest era for Queen Elizabeth II definitives.
The portrait of the queen was far and away the best design in an undistinguished series of Caricature definitives that debuted in 1972.
In 1973, she appeared on a blue 8¢ letter-rate stamp (Scott 593), which is shown nearby. This stamp was followed by the 10¢ carmine stamp to meet a rate increase in 1976 (593A).
Thereafter, for the next 27 years, the queen remained always available on Canada definitives, but I feel that the stamps were invariably boring.
From 1977 (Scott 716) to 1983 (792) came a grainy-looking sequence of left-facing gray profiles on stamps, evidently intended to masquerade as a poor man’s version of the Machin definitives — those exquisitely rendered stamps of Great Britain.
The designs improved a bit when two-tone color replaced the shading in 1985-87 (Scott 926-926A). Both types are shown here.
This was followed from 1987 to 2000 by a sad relapse into a tedious series, each with the same tiny, unflattering portrait of her majesty with an unnatural-looking smile, reminiscent of those often found on school photographs, varying only in the dull shade of the computer-generated background and ever-increasing face values.
Of the drab stamps of this sorry 13-year period, I inflict on you the 37¢ from 1987 (Scott 1162).
I like to think the new millennium prompted a fresh look at these awful adhesives. At any rate, the 49¢ definitive shown nearby (Scott 2012) was the first to turn the tide.
As a news release memorably told it: “Canada Post’s domestic rate (49¢) definitive stamp portraying the Queen is based on a photograph taken during her Golden Jubilee year by the Canadian rock musician Bryan Adams. Like other photographers granted the privilege for this occasion, Adams was given just five minutes to obtain a photograph that was both memorable and distinctive.
“In a quick session at the Garden Entrance to Buckingham Palace, he took this unusually informal, close-up image of the Queen, a portrait of a familiar, mature woman. ‘She’s a mother and a grandmother,’ says Adams, ‘and I think my photo gives us a glimpse of the real person.’ ”
First, this was no lucky shot by a happy amateur; Adams enjoys international recognition as an outstanding cameraman. More importantly, Adams’ “glimpse of the real person” was everything that the design on the stamps it replaced was not. Maybe that real person had to take her crown off to truly be seen.
To Canada Post’s credit, after a 50¢ reprise of Adams’ image in blue (Scott 2075), those who were responsible for later definitives took Adams’ lesson to heart. As good as she looks in an heirloom tiara or gem-studded crown, Queen Elizabeth II looks even better in a smart hat.
And when she looks and feels more herself, pictured in brilliant colors, she shows the most appealing asset of any lovely woman — a genuine, radiant smile that is delightful to behold.
So it came to pass on non-denominated permanent, or “P,” domestic letter-rate Queen Elizabeth II definitives issued in 2006 (Scott 2188), 2007 (Scott 2248), 2009 (Scott 2298), 2010 (Scott 2365) and 2013 (Scott 2617). The 2006 and 2013 stamps are shown nearby.
On these stamps, Elizabeth II appears as the regal, stylish but beloved grandmother of the whole British Commonwealth — wise, charming, graceful, affectionate — everything you could want in a queen. Each of these stamps is unique, just like the once-in-a-lifetime monarch they honor, who may now be the most recognized woman on the planet. May we have opportunities to enjoy more such definitives in the years ahead.