With World War 1 on the horizon, the definitive high-value Seahorse was a stamp created to rally a nation, evoking the stoic might and moral fortitude of both the incumbent King George V and the Roman tutelary goddess Britannia, brandishing a Union Jack shield and guided across turbulent seas by three ardent and undaunted steads.
One elegant image, one simple message: Britain rules the waves.
First issued in the summer of 1913, the year proceeding the fateful assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on the cusp of the Great War, the Seahorse is adorned with imperial messaging – from the trident to the Corinthian helmet – and the stamps served to fan the embers of the once roaring flames of a diminishing British Empire at a most crucial time on the world stage. As such, they rightfully remain some of the most sort after and patriotic of all the iconic 20th-century Anglo-Saxon stamps.
Few stamps equal the elegance of the Seahorse with its historical relevance and powerful portraiture.
Few stamps equal the elegance of the Seahorse with its historical relevance and powerful portraiture. It is indeed a visually striking example, with high-quality engraving and an intricate design; the combined work of renowned sculptor Bertram Mackennal (the first Australian elected an associate of the Royal Academy) and noted British stamp engraver J.A.C. Harrison (whose die proofs form part of the British Library Philatelic Collections).
There was a surprise third party involved in the process: George V, a stamp collector in his own right, he amended the original design, making suggestions and insisting that the stamps were printed in intaglio instead of letterpress (whereby the paper is pressed into the engraved recesses of a printing plate containing the die) thus giving a more polished appearance.
It’s worth noting that Mackennal – whose famous image of Britannia riding a chariot through stormy waters is based on both classical sources and the stamp designs of Barbados – would go on to become the first Australian artist to be knighted, such was the notoriety of his work. And that of all his designs, the emperor-king’s head is by far his most enduring creation.
As a side note, at the time of release, the high-value stamps were not functional for most people – with £1 the equivalent of an average worker’s weekly wages.