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Curator's introduction

The British Library's Philatelic Collections are the world's largest, most diverse and most complete of their kind. They include a wide variety of items: not only postage stamps, but also revenue stamps (both adhesive and non-adhesive), postal stationery, postal history materials, meter stamps, postal orders, paper money, and more besides. About half are from Great Britain. The rest come from the British Empire, British Commonwealth and foreign countries.

We are fortunate in having had the generous support of the philatelic community in the development of this truly international resource since it was first established in 1891. In addition, archives have been transferred from British Government departments responsible for the production or use of a variety of philatelic materials, both postal and revenue. Today, some fifty important collections and archives, comprising over eight million items, are held for research and exhibition. They probably include more of philately's greatest pieces than any other collection.

This fortunate circumstance is almost entirely due to the collection formed by Thomas Keay Tapling MP (1855-1891), which was bequeathed to the nation on his untimely death at the age of 35. Tapling had taken up his interest at a young age. At Harrow, he received a birthday present of £100 on condition it was spent and not saved. His philately was the beneficiary.With funds provided by his family and its business interests, he purchased many leading collections in their entirety as they became available. In 1887, Tapling doubled the size of his collection with the purchase of a large part of the extensive holdings of the Parisian collectors, Gustave and Martial Caillebotte - a purchase that included, no doubt, a number of great rarities. Since it embraces the first fifty years of postage stamp history, 1840 to 1890, Tapling's collection contains many classic issues. It is the only major collection formed during the nineteenth century that survives intact.

Treasures from Tapling's collection form the core of the carefully chosen selection of eighty items presented here, supplemented by items from various other collections held at the British Library. They represent a range of countries and, while most date from the nineteenth century, some are as late as the mid-twentieth. The selection can be divided into three groups: errors, rarities and the rather special!

Among the most notable printing errors are: the Cape of Good Hope 1861 4d printed in vermilion instead of blue, in a pair with the normal; the France 1853-61 1 franc carmine in a 'tête-bêche' pair (a pair with one upside down), a major piece; the 'entire' (a folded and stamped letter) from Bombay to Venice bearing two copies of the India 1854 4 annas with the head Queen Victoria inverted; the Spain 1851 2 reales printed in blue instead of red, one of only three to survive: the unique Transvaal 1870 1/- tête-bêche pair, and from Australia the Western Australia 1854-55 4d error frame inverted is one of fourteen copies known.

In the rarities category the British Guiana 1850-51 4 cents lemon-yellow produced from printers type, imperforate and cut square on entire is one of only two, the second being in the Royal Philatelic Collection; from the first issues of Canada in 1851 the 12d black in a horizontal pair is one of five known; the provisional issue for Gold Coast of 1883 1d on 4d magenta is unique; and perhaps the most famous of rarities of them all are the 1d and 2d Mauritius “Post Office” issue of 1847.

Of the items of special note we have included the unique Proof sheet of tax or revenue stamps for America of 1765; the issues for Germany issued by the Allied Occupation from 1947 on cards signed by the four powers approving officers; from the new world to the old an envelope carried on the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1919 and addressed by the pilot John Alcock to his sister; and the unique designs or essays for two of the stamps of New South Wales the “Sydney Views” of 1850.

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