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  American Philatelist
Journal of the American Philatelic Society
October 2000
pp 932-935
All text herein Copyright
© Dr. William R. Hanson, 2000,
and used here with permission.

The Adventure of the Detective Stamp

by William R. Hanson

 

In the May 1987 issue of The American Philatelist (page 430) I wrote an article entitled "On Becoming a Stamp Designer, or ... How To Make Your Own Toys." It was a reflection of some of the pleasure I find in being a stamp designer. I can create designs that, as a collector, I would like to buy and, because I do my own research, I often can suggest honoring certain persons, places, or events (within an overall framework previously approved by the commissioning government), and have a good chance of having them approved. Most of us have a particular stamp subject we'd like to see issued. Imagine the thrill of being able to propose it, laying out the design just as you visualize it, seeing a perfectly legitimate postal administration issue your stamp, and getting paid in the bargain!

A favorite subject, for me, is Sherlock Holmes. As a confirmed Sherlockian, I have been able to suggest including a Holmes subject within a set that, on first glance, had nothing to do with the famous fictional detective at all.

Considering his worldwide popularity: Sherlock Holmes has appeared on relatively few postage stamps; and the land of his birth trailed long after others in paying philatelic tribute to "The greatest man who never lived." Pride of place goes to Nicaragua, which gave him the high-value (2-cordoba) stamp in their INTERPOL Anniversary set of 1973 (Scott C812); a nice thumbnail biography of the character and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, appears on the back, printed on the gum.

San Marino produced a set honoring fictional detectives in 1979, and gave the high-value (220-lira) honor to Holmes (Scott 953). The next year the Comoro Islands honored the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's death with a stamp depicting him. Sherlock Holmes, the hound of the Baskervilles. and Baskerville Hall (Scott 502). They committed the terrible faux pas, however, of calling him "Sir Conan Doyle"; he should properly be referred to as "Sir Arthur," "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle," or; less formally; as "Conan Doyle." In 1981, to answer a temporary stamp shortage, the Comoros overprinted several stamps with new values. The Doyle stamp was revalued to 15 francs, overprinted in red (Scott 513).

For the 125th anniversary of Doyle's birth in 1859, the Turks and Caicos Islands issued a set of four stamps and a souvenir sheet (Scott 629-33) with pencil sketches of scenes from some of Holmes' most famous cases. Illustrated herewith an art board and overlay for the souvenir sheet to illustrate how a stamp design is prepared for the printer. By comparing it with the issued piece, you can see how the many layers of the onion provided by the artist are used by the security-house platemaker and printer to create the finished product.

Unlike most modern stamps, which are printed by the four-color process method using translucent inks (process yellow process magenta, process cyan - close to turquoise - and process black). the entire Turks and Caicos issue was printed tri-color (in light and dark green and black) by custom-mixing the greens and then printing with three plates and three ink fountains. For example, with the souvenir sheet an overall light green tone was laid down, then "Turks & Caicos Islands" was printed in dark green. and finally the black plate added the rest of the type, Doyle's portrait (shot as line art), and all other illustrative material (shot as half-tone).

Also issued in 1984 was the Redonda Easter souvenir sheet depicting Goofy as Holmes searching for Easter eggs. Although the stamps do perform a limited postal duty: they are still unlisted by Scott.

Two locomotives named "Sherlock Holmes" have rolled on British rails, and at least one has been depicted on a stamp. For the paired 60-cent values of the 1985 Funafuti-Tuvalu "Leaders of the World Trains" series (Scott 32), the 1920 London Transport Diesel was shown as side and end elevations on one stamp and in action on the other.

In 1990 1 was asked to do a multi-nation omnibus series for Stamp World London 90 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Penny Black, and another omnibus on the cog railways of the world. The Bhutan souvenir sheet (Scott 915) depicts a young woman of Queen Victoria's day with a parasol over her shoulder and a Royal Mail coach drawn up in front of London's Northumberland Hotel. I designed this as a gift for a friend and fellow APS member, Mary Ann Owens, who was building an award-winning collection, "Parasols on Stamps," at the time. The Northumberland Hotel figures prominently in a couple of Holmes' adventures, especially in everyone's favorite, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Today it is the home of the Sherlock Holmes Pub and the excellent reconstruction of the Baker Street sitting room built for the 1951 Festival of Britain Exposition.

The Brunigline, one of Switzerland's great little cog railways, climbs from the shore of Lake Luzerne up through the Brunig Pass to Meiringen, from which it is a pleasant hike to the famous, or should I say "infamous" (to Holmes fans), Reichenbach Falls. When Holmes and Watson climbed through the narrow pass, as described in "The Adventure of the Final Problem," they would have taken to the hillsides (as I've shown them on the Commonwealth of Dominica souvenir sheet, Scott 1295) to avoid the chance of being seen by their dogged pursuer, Professor Moriarty, should he be on board the train. Watson doesn't specifically mention the train, but the snow would have been gone from the pass and the trains running again by the date set in the story. Since Moriarty was fond of his creature comforts, there was no way he was going to pass up riding as opposed to needlessly clambering over rocks and through gullies while tracking his prey. He would have thought it bad enough that he had to hike after Holmes to the falls where they would have their fatal encounter.

In 1986 Disney brought out a charming cartoon feature, "The Great Mouse Detective," with two mice, Detective Basil and Dr. Dawson (who even looks like Nigel Bruce), as mousie versions of Doyle's heroes. Vincent Price supplied the voice of the delightfully wicked villain, Professor Ratigan. Polly Cianciolo, who managed the Disney stamp program for many years until her recent retirement, selected a series of scenes from this cartoon for the nine Grenadines of St. Vincent stamps and two souvenir sheets (Scott 986a-i, 989-90) issued in 1992.

The British Post Office belatedly remembered London's great detective in 1987 with a series of four booklet covers (Scott 10750 illustrated by Andrew Davidson, but it wasn't until 1993 that Britain finally commemorated the adventures of her great fictional detective on stamps. The se-tenant strip of five 24-pence stamps depicted scenes from "The Reigate Squire," "The Hound of the Baskervilles," The Six Napoleons," "The Greek Interpreter," and "The Final Solution" (Scott 1515-19).

As if to make up for the long period of neglect, the British Post Office issued another "Hound of the Baskervilles" stamp in 1997, the 43-pence high value in a "Stories and Legends" set. The barely discernable image of a hound's face (Scott 1757) is part of the most horrendous stamp set it has ever been my misfortune to view. It makes you wonder what postal officials are thinking when they approve certain issues.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes joins eight other detective luminaries of the silver screen, from Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade to Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, on a sheetlet from the Commonwealth of Dominica in the late 1990s (Scott 1845d). For some reason, the artist has decided to forgo the traditional black silk topper or deerstalker cap worn in the classic Rathbone/Holmes movies set in the nineteenth century for the modern hat he wore in the patriotic action films set in World War II.

Guernsey's 1996 set honoring 100 years of the cinema included Basil Rathbone, complete with deerstalker, on its 35-pence value (Scott 578).

I suspect there are cinema centenary issues besides Guernsey and the Commonwealth of Dominica depicting one or another actor as Holmes, although I haven't had the chance to dig them out. One could easily expand on this theme with famous actors who have played Sherlockian roles on stage, the radio, movies, or television, and have been honored on stamps. Charlie Chaplin immediately comes to mind. He played the role of the pageboy; "Bill;" in a 1903 touring company production of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle/Williarn Gillette stage play, "Sherlock Holmes."

Likewise, I suspect there are other single Disney stamps reproducing the posters for various Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck short stories or comic book covers that depict one of the other hero as a Holmes'-type character. There was a Mickey Mouse featurette with the Sherlockian bit, "The Phantom Blot," but I'm not sure if a stamp was issued with that subject.

I am surprised not to have found any Holmes issues from the USSR or former Soviet-block countries, as the great detective was always popular there. With the spate of new republics, and local issues emanating from this area, perhaps some new Holmes stamps are on the way.

I have checked with the Baker Street Irregulars and find that there is no Sherlockian philatelic scion active in either the United States or overseas. For a number of years during the 1980s there was a Law Enforcement Unit of the American Topical Association that produced a journal called The Blotter, which frequently ran articles by Helen Cushman "Illustrating the Stories of Sherlock Holmes With Stamps." Professor Ted Friedman contributes occasional Sherlockian articles to the ATA's Topical Time that are excellent. The ATA will release a 72-page handbook in the summer of 2000, The Philatelic Advoitures of Sherlock Holmes, by Larry Dodson, for $14 ppd. For ordering information, contact the ATA c/o Dr. Paul E Tyler, 1023 Rocky Point Court NE, Albuquerque, NM 87123, or by e-mail at ATAStamps@juno.com.

Have I missed any Holmes' issues? Probably; I haven' really kept track of the new issue market for the last fey years. But I hope this is enough to whet your appetite for a collection where the wind is whistling in the chimney and the gaslights along Baker Street are flickering "in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895."*
* Starrett, Vincent. The Private Life of Mr. Sherlock Hohnes (Bookman, New York. 1932).


The Author

Dr. William R. Hanson, Lunar Artist Apollo 16, was the only artist whose paintings were approved by NASA to be flown to the moon. He has been a professional stamp designer since the early 1980s, when the Republic of Palau gave him the opportunity to turn a hobby into a profession. Since then, he has created more than 3,000 stamps for some two dozen countries.


Illustrations (click image for page):
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (Scott 1845d) joins eight other detective luminaries of the silver screen on a sheetlet from the Commonwealth of Dominica in the late 1990s. For some reason, the artist has exchanged the traditional black silk topper or deerstalker cap worn in the classic Rathbone/Holmes movies for a modern hat from the movies set in World War II.

In 1993 Great Britain finally commemorated the adventures of her famous fictional detective with a se-tenant strip of five 24-pence stamps depicting scenes from different stories (Scott 1515-19).

The author was able to work a Holmes theme into his stamp design for the Brunigline, one of Switzerland's cog railways, which climbs from the shore of Lake Luzerne through the Brunig Pass to Meiringen, a short hike from the famous Reichenbach Falls where Holmes and his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty, have their final encounter (Scott 1295).

Nicaragua was the first country to issue a stamp honoring Sherlock Holmes - the high value (2-cordoba) in the INTERPOL Anniversary set of 1973 (Scott C812).

For the 125th anniversary of Doyle's birth in 1859, the Turks and Caicos Islands issued a set of four stamps and a souvenir sheet (Scott 629-33) with pencil sketches of scenes from some of Holmes' most famous cases. Illustrated are the original art board and overlay for one of these stamps and the souvenir sheet, showing how a stamp design is prepared for the printer.

A series of scenes from the 1986 Walt Disney cartoon feature, '71 Great Mouse Detective," illustrate a pane of nine stamps and two souvenir sheets from the Grenadines of St. Vincent (Scott 986a-i, 989-90), issued in 1992.