The Shakespeare Festival set of 1964 broke new ground with its portrait of a commoner, and with its presentation pack, postmarks and aerogrammes
The exact date on which William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon is unknown, but tradition says it was on St George’s Day, April 23, 1564.
The Post Office’s long-standing refusal to countenance stamps in honour of famous people gave it a problem in 1964 when there was agitation for a special issue of stamps to mark the 400th anniversary.
But it found a way around its discomfort. It argued that its special issue was to celebrate an event of international importance (the annual Shakespeare Festival at Stratford), rather than the man himself.
Nevertheless, this was a real break with previous policy, in that the four lower denominations featured the first portrait of a commoner to appear on British stamps.
In the original version of the Droeshout portrait the poet faced left. On the stamps it was reversed so that he faced towards the centre, balancing the familiar Dorothy Wilding portrait of the Queen.
Scene on stage
Designed by David Gentleman and photogravure-printed by Harrison & Sons, each of the four low values also depicted a 16th-century set from one of Shakespeare’s plays.
The 3d had Puck cavorting round Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the 6d showed Feste, the clown in Twelfth Night. The 1s 3d depicted the famous balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet, while the 1s 6d portrayed the King kneeling in prayer on the eve of Agincourt from Henry V. All the figures were reproduced from woodcuts.
In contrast, the 2s 6d was the first commemorative since the £1 Postal Union Congress stamp of 1929 to be line-engraved.
Designed by the brothers Robin and Christopher Ironside, and recess-printed by Bradbury Wilkinson, it showed Hamlet contemplating the skull of his father’s court jester, Yorick. This was the only stamp in the set to bear the name of the play.
Royal Mail established three further precedents with this set.
The first was the issue of a presentation pack for the first time.
The second was a large-diameter rubber datestamp which was supplied to major post offices for cancelling first day covers.
The third was the release of two commemorative air-letter sheets (aerogrammes), bearing a 4d premium and depicting on the reverse side either the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford or scenes from six plays.
The first printing of the former sheet bore the erroneous caption ‘Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon’. This was corrected in a second printing which is much rarer than the error.
For the Quatercentenary Festival itself, a pictorial handstamp incorporating Shakespeare’s coat of arms was provided.
The release of the stamps also coincided with Stampex, which had its own pictorial handstamp showing the Bard’s birthplace (as well as a souvenir sheet showing the rejected designs for the issue).
Stratford had a pictorial slogan depicting Tudor houses with the words ‘Visit Shakespeare’s Town’.
Finally, Gentleman’s images of Romeo and Juliet were adapted for a nationwide slogan with the caption ‘Someone somewhere wants a letter from you’.
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