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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Philatelic Swans

By: Rosemary Adcock

The majestical elegance of the swan, coupled with a touching constancy to its mate, gives the bird an intensely romantic appeal. Its graceful, strange beauty has long inspired admiration, and artists of many nations have attempted to capture its unique splendour. It has appeared on stamps ranging from Europe to the Far East and makes an enormously attractive subject for a thematic collection.

Swan with Two Nicks:- In England swans have been owned by the Crown since the 12th century, although royal licences were granted to wealthy landowners, companies and guilds, who each gave their own swans an identification mark on the bill or foot. During reign of Elizabeth there were as many as 900 different swan marks in use. The procedure of gathering and marking the swans each summer is known as swan upping. Today there are only two companies who still participate in this annual event on the Thames: the Dyers and the Vintners, whose respective marks are one nick and two nicks on the beak.

Every one interested in the history of mail coaches will be familiar with the swan with Two Necks, the tavern which formed the London terminus for John Palmer’s famous trial run in August 1784. The inn sign showed a two headed bird, a design which appeared again on mail coach tokens issued by the inn in the 19th century. This curious name was a corruption of “swan with two nicks”.

Snorts, Hisses and Rattles:- The Mute swan with orange bill is the type most commonly seen in Britain. The name is somewhat misleading as it in fact capable of uttering an impressive variety of snorts, hisses and rattles. It has also made more appearances on stamps than any other type of swan.

In 1935 Denmark portrayed a solitary Mute swan on a 50. (SG 292), while other countries to honour this species have included this species have included Finland on a 1955 30m.+5m.(563), Russia on a 1957 Ir.(2063d), Japan with a 1971 5y. (1227) and Mongolia with a triangular 60m. (769) in 1973. Rumania is a particularly rich source. There was a dimond shaped 11.35 (3311) in the migratory birds set of 1965, followed by a 10b. Of 1968 (3598) and an 11. of 1977 (4285).

Bulgaria’s 1s. of 1976 (2455) has a deep blue background which enhances the swan’s whiteness. This is the lowest value in the waterfowl issue of six stamps. Also with a blue background is Sweden’s 1942 20k. (257) which illustrates two flying swans. This was an extremely popular issue. In a poll carried out by the Swedish Post Office some years ago, it was voted the best Swedish stamp since 1855.

Another issue which delighted bird theme collectors was the Isle of Man’s 1983 sea bird set. This comprised 16 values, with Mute swans appearing on the 1 (247). Among the first day covers, the one which displays the swan in a square framed portrait is worth looking for.

Far less common in the British Isles is the whooper swan, recognizable by its yellow and black beak and habit of holding its neck straighter than the Mute. These birds are found mainly in Scotland and Northern England during the winter months, following their annual migration from Iceland. It was appropriate, therefore, for Iceland to depict five flying whoopers on its 1956 1k.50 and 1k.75 stamps (344/5) celebrating Northern Countries Day. At the same time this design was also use on the stamps of other “Northern Countries”, namely Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Russia, too, has illustrated this species in flight on a 1972 50k, (MS4129) and Albania included it on a 35q. (1767) in its1975 wildfowl issue.

In china the swan is regarded as the embodiment of loftiness, purity and beauty, and is under State protection as a rare bird. A very attractive set of 1983 stamps (3283/6) presents the three species found in the country. The Mute is shown on two 8f. values, four Whistling swans (they have a musical, high pitched call) swim on the 10f. while six whoopers fly across the 80f.

Painting by Edward Lear:- Bewick’s swan is the slightly smaller European counterpart of the Whistling swan and was named after the Northumbrian engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), an accomplished illustrator of birds. It visits England during the winter months; a large herd usually arrives at the Slimbridge wildfowl sanctuary in Gloucestershire during October. A painting of this swan by Edward Lear was shown on Britain’s 1977 31p (1382) in the set celebrating the Linnean Society’s bicentenary. The stamp’s background carries notes by William Yarrell, who first identified the Bewick as a distinct species.

The Linnean Society produced a first day cover bearing a lithograph of this swan, and there is also a very attractive picture of two of the birds on the covers issued by the Wildfowl Trust, some of which were postmarked at Swan Lake, Arundel. The postmark itself shows two of the swans in flight. In fact Bewick’s swan is the emblem of the Wildfowl Trust and has been used on previous postmarks. For example, an illustration of a single bird in flight appeared on covers carrying the January 1980 stamps which marked the centenary of the Wild Bird Protection Act.

Another organization which uses a swan as its logo is the Royal Shakespeare Company. For many swans have graced the River Avon at Stratford, although recently their numbers have been sadly depleted by lead poisoning from fishermen’s weights. In 1982 the Royal Shakespeare theatre issued a cover to commemorate its 50th anniversary. This bore the newly issued British Theatre stamps and incorporated a swan in the special postmark.

According to legend, it was Richard I who first introduced Mute swans to England when he brought them back from Cyprus in the last decade of the 12th century. Experts, however, believe they were living wild in the country long before this time. During the Middle Ages roast swan was a delicacy served at royal banquets, and it was still occasionally consumed in the 18th century. Charles Carter’s Complete Cook, published in 1730, recommended the autumn months as the best time for cooking cygnets.

The Swan Knight:- Nevertheless, despite its appearance on the dinner table, the swan retained an aura of grandeur and dignity, and was adopted as a badge or crest by number of prominent families in England and Europe. This was partly due to the medieval legend of the Swan Knight, a brave and chivalrous warrior who traveled in a boat drawn by a white swan. He fought for the oppressed, but this name and antecedents remained a mystery.

The powerful De Bohun family chose a swan as their badge and when Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) married Mary de Bohun, he took the bird as an emblem of his own. Visitors to the exquisite St George’s Chapel in Windsor will observe that decorating the outside pinnacles are a series of Royal Beasts, including Henry’s swan, carved in stone, each 4 feet 6 inches high. Among the other exotic creatures are a lion, dragon, panther, yale and falcon.

These Royal Beasts, and others besides, made a philatelic appearance in 1978 on an omnibus issue of several Commonwealth countries to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Each participating country issued three stamps: one with a Peter Grugeon portrait of the Queen, one showing a statue of a Royal Beast and one displaying a local beast in simulated stonework. A 45c. of Christmas Island (96) carried the White Swan of Bohun, strikingly presented on a rich purple background.

As it happens, Christmas Island’s preceding issue had also incorporated swans. This was the 1977 Chrismas set (84/95) based on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” the well-known cumulative song, frewuently used as a memory testing game during the festive period. It is interesting to compare this set with Britain’s 1977 Christmas issue (1044/9) on the same theme. Jennifer Toombs, the descope, having 12 stamps to work on (each of 10c.), compared with Britain’s six. David Gentleman, who designed the British set, was obliged to fit two of the true love’s gifts on to each stamp, no mean feat when it came to the 11 dancing ladies and 12 leaping lords.

Black Swan:- The seven swans a-swimming appear in a neat row above the eight milkmaids on one of the 7p values (1046). On the corresponding stamp for Christmas Island there are seven very beautiful Black swans set against a soft blue background.

In fact the black swan made its philatelic debut over 100 years earlier when it was featured as the regular motif on stamps of Western Australia. This area had formerly been known as the Swan River Settlement, following the arrival of white settlers in 1829 who set up home near the Swan River (named after its Black swans). After considerable development, it was proclaimed the colony of western Australia in 1840.

When the colony’s first stamps were issued in August 1854, they bore its emblems of a Black swan, a design which continued to be used until 1901. Early specimens are very expensive, but those dating from 1861, when perforations were adopted, are easier to acquire.

A famous philatelic error which emanates from this series is the inverted swan on the 1854 4d. During the lithographic printing process, the frame transfer was inadvertently placed upside down on the stone, or plate. Approximately 12 of these “mistakes” are known to exist.

The centenary of Western Australia’s first stamps issue was celebrated by Australia in 1954 with a commemorative 3-1/2 d. stamp which bore a replica of the Black and white, which proved quite effective.

A Barrel of Treacle:- The most curious looking of all swans is the Black necked variety. With a pure white body but black head and neck, it looks for all the world as if it has thrust its head into a barrel of treacle. It is found in several South American countries, including Uruguay, Paraquay, and Argentina, and also in the Falkland Islands, on whose stamps it has appeared. In 1938 both the 1d. and 2d. (147 & 150) values bore an engraving of a Black necked swan with its reflection discenible in the water beneath. The stamps are strikingly coloured in red and black.

Six years later, in 1944, the 2d. was used for the Falkland Islands Dependencies of Graham Land, South Georgia, South Orkneys and South Shetland. The stamps were simply overprinted with the appropriate name, for example “SOUTH GEORGIA DEPENDENCY OF”.

A magnificent set of 15 stamps showing birds native to the islands was issued by the Falklands in 1960 (194/207). The yen 1 value in black and yellow carries an illustration of the black necked swan.

Another species found in the Falkland Islands is the Coscoroba swan, although it is quite rare. This attractive bird is the smallest of all swans and has a white tips and red bill. The name comes from its strange four-syllabled call which sounds like cos-co-ro-ba.

There is a delightful portrayal of one of these birds on Jersey’s 1984 28p (328) which forms part of the set honouring the island’s Wildlife Preservation Trust. This was the fourth set in the wildlife series and marked especially the 21st anniversary of the Trust and the Silver Jubilee of the Jersey Zoo.

The designer, William Oliver, has shown the swan standing in shallow water, amongst reeds, with its black wing feathers clearly visible. The Coscoroba is part of the captive breeding programme initiated by Geald Durrell, founder of the zoo.

This is by no means an exhaustive survey of swan stamps available to collectors. There is a rich field to be mined and the variety of species portrayed makes this theme a particularly engaging one.