King Edward VIII stamps: stamps for a coronation that never took place

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edwardVIII_coronation_stamp-25092.png Images courtesy of The Postal Museum, copyright Royal Mail
We turn the clock back to 1936 and examine the work on preparing a Coronation stamp issue for King Edward VIII

It was merely days after the death of King George V on 20 January, 1936 that suggestions were forthcoming that there should be special stamps to mark the Coronation of King Edward VIII in 1937.

There had not been such an issue for King Edward VII and King George V, and it was only in the latter reign that the British Post Office had produced special stamps, so such thoughts were perhaps surprising.

One suggestion came just ten days after the Accession from the Minister of Works who put forward an idea of a set up to one shilling, featuring the King in the uniforms of the armed forces, the Coronation Chair and interior of Westminster Abbey, the Royal coat-of-arms, Royal residences, and a map of the world highlighting the British Empire. He went even further as to suggest a £1 stamp issued after the event showing the King in the Coronation robes.

These were very progressive thoughts, given that no pictorial designs had, at that juncture, been issued by the British Post Office.

During an audience with the King on 10 March, the Postmaster-General (PMG) put forward the idea of a Coronation set.

The King agreed that a set depicting Royal castles would be acceptable. Eleven days later, during a further audience during which the PMG showed the King the ideas for the initial stamps of the reign, the matter of pictorial design for the Coronation was again raised. This time the question was the inclusion of the King’s portrait. The feeling was that including the portrait might spoil pictorial designs: the King agreed, and stated that the portrait could be omitted if better designs resulted.

However, at this juncture there was no more consideration given to Coronation stamps. The priority was to issue the first definitives, designated as the ‘Accession’ issue. These would be replaced by the Coronation stamps for three months, and would be followed by a ‘Permanent’ issue.

Come June work on the ‘Accession’ issue was virtually complete, so thoughts could turn to the Coronation.

The Director General of the Post Office felt that it would be appropriate to have three stamps showing the King in the uniforms of the three armed services, the Army, Navy and Air Force (½d, 1d and 1½d), and two higher value stamps (2½d and 2s 6d) depicting royal castles. The brief was given to Harrison and Sons, the printers of Britain’s low-value stamps using photogravure, to come up with some ideas, although it was pointed out that one of the higher values might be a 2s 6d value printed by intaglio (line-engraved).

An immediate need was photographs of the King in the three uniforms. There existed one by Bertram Park in the uniform of Colonel in Chief of the Seaforth Highlanders (Army). A Naval photograph by Hugh Cecil was available, but was not felt to be sharp enough for reproduction. None existed of the King in RAF uniform.

Rough designs
On 29 July Harrison provided a series of fifteen rough designs, some using the Seaforth Highlanders portrait, others the portrait by Hugh Cecil that had been chosen for the ‘Accession’ series. Among the pictorial suggestions were views of Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Houses of Parliament, Nelson’s Column and the Tower of London. Two of these were taken beyond the rough stage: those depicting Windsor Castle and the Tower of London.

If nothing else, these ideas helped concentrate minds at the Post Office. It was clear that existing photographs of royal castles were not suitable for use on stamps. There needed to be photographs taken of the King in the uniforms of the three services, if this approach was adopted. Another possibility was to use the head being adapted by the Royal Mint for use on coinage and medals.

The rough designs from Harrison threw up another question: the size of the stamps. The company had chosen a size larger than that used for definitives, as it was not best for pictorial designs. Another option was twice definitive size, as used for the King George V Silver Jubilee set.

These both had the advantage of printing in sheets of 240 or 120 respectively, thus easier for accounting. Two alternatives were considered: the so-called ‘Australian’ size of 1.2ins by 0.95ins, and that used by the Crown Agents for its Silver Jubilee omnibus series, of 1.6ins by 1.11ins.

Harrison pointed out that, deviating from sizes that had been already used would require new perforating combs, and these took time to produce. Also, the larger the stamp, the fewer to a sheet, and thus the longer it would take to print the required quantity, again pushing up costs.

However, the company had already indicated that as long as the designs were agreed by October there should be no problem in having the stamps ready on time.

Preparations continued.

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It was agreed that photographs of the royal castles should be taken by the GPO Film Unit, for which permission was needed from the office of the Lord Chamberlain. This was received for Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse, but not for Balmoral Castle, it being a private residence of the sovereign. Obtaining photographs of the King in the various uniforms had to be put on hold as he was rather pre-occupied during the summer of 1936.

No doubt wishing to advance the issue, Harrison produced further designs as essays on 7 and 23 September, based on two of the portraits to hand, in the uniforms of the Welsh Guards, by Hugh Cecil, and of the Seaforth Highlanders. Various frame styles were offered, while the designs featured the year ‘1937’. By this time the ‘Accession’ definitives had appeared: these had received some criticism, although generally had been well received.

So, while the Post Office did not wish to go down the road of inviting artists to submit design ideas, the Postmaster General felt it prudent to seek the advice of the Royal Fine Arts Commission on the work so far undertaken. It offered detailed comments on the essays prepared by Harrisons.
For his part, the Postmaster General felt that having photographs of the King in the various uniforms was proving highly unlikely as there seemed no opportunity to take the necessary photographs until at least October. He therefore asked the printers to prepare essays featuring the portrait of the King as used for the ‘Accession’ issue, these being produced on 23 September.

The PMG’s view was that there should be four low values featuring a portrait of the King, these stamps to be of the ‘Australian’ size, with a higher, one shilling (rather than 2s 6d as previously suggested), value depicting possibly Windsor Castle or St James’s Palace. Nevertheless, a final approach was made on 29 September to see if the King would be prepared to sit for further photographs: no reply was received. In the meantime, Harrison ordered two perforating machines for the ‘Australian’ size: the outcome would be sheets of 160 stamps delivered to post offices.

An alternative portrait
Thoughts therefore had turned to an alternative portrait. At the start of the process to develop stamp designs for the new reign, the Post Office had approached the Royal Mint to see what work had been undertaken with regard to a portrait for new coinage.

At the time the King had not approved such a portrait. A fresh approach was made to the Royal Mint bringing the reply that the King had approved a portrait by Humphrey Paget showing the King uncrowned that would be used for official medals.

A plaster cast of the Paget head was sent to Harrison, from which the company was able to prepare an essay as a 1½d value in green showing the portrait against a vertically ribbed background. This was not particularly satisfactory, so further essays were produced with the portrait in an oval: these further essays were produced in the four colours needed for the low value definitives.

The PMG made enquiries to see if the King would approve the use of the Paget head on the stamps. The reply, received on 4 November, came as a surprise. The King suggested an alternative portrait, one featuring the King crowned that was to be used for Coronation medals, and which had been produced by Percy Metcalfe. In fact, there were two versions: one showing no signs of a uniform at the neck that would be used for the official medals, and another showing part of a uniform that would be used for the medals put on general sale. Also surprisingly, the King advised that if these further ideas proved unacceptable, he would be prepared to sit for a new portrait.

A plaster cast of this crowned head was produced by the Royal Mint.

In the meantime work continued using the uncrowned head. When examining the essays the Royal Fine Arts Commission had expressed the view that an expert calligrapher should be asked to look at the designs, and to this end the Post Office approached Eric Gill.

His suggestions took a simpler approach: one of his designs was based on that with the portrait in an oval that had been prepared by Harrison. Gill’s second design showed the portrait within a thin white rectangular frame. Essays of these were produced on 12 November. Two weeks later further essays were prepared showing slight modifications to the background – either toned or solid – of the second Gill approach. Gill also worked on a design using the Metcalfe crowned head, also essayed on 27 November.

However, Gill was never happy at using a photographic portrait, and always felt that a drawn head was preferable.

The essays of Gill’s work were shown to the Royal Fine Arts Commission on 30 November. The view was that the crowned head was preferable, although, as this had been produced for use on medals, when printed as a stamp some of the detail was lost. Further essays were therefore prepared and were submitted on 8 December.

Work had also continued on possible pictorial designs, and various essays were produced. These arrived in late October and early November and depicted St James’s Palace, Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. These were found unsuitable or inappropriate by both the PMG and Royal Fine Arts Commission. Alternatives were suggested such as Buckingham Palace, Caernarvon Castle and Holyroodhouse, plus better views of St James’s Palace.

Interestingly, it seems some consideration was also being given to the subsequent ‘Permanent’ set. A bromide exists of a 6d value based on a coin with the Hugh Cecil portrait as used for the ‘Accession’ issue and oak leaves. Subsequently a similar essay was produced but using the uncrowned Paget head. However, no further progress was made on either the Coronation or ‘Permanent’ issues.

The reason is well known: on 11 December King Edward VIII abdicated. 

The Coronation still took place on 12 May, 1937, but of King George VI. A Coronation stamp did appear the following day – but that is another story.

Information and illustrations from the records kept at The Postal Museum. Images courtesy of The Postal Museum, copyright Royal Mail.