Friday, 21 June 2013

HEATH, Charles Theodosius

We all know the Penny Black, but how many of us can answer the following question: Who engraved the Penny Black? Well, it was a father and son duo: Charles and Frederick Heath.

Charles Heath (1785 - 1848) comes from a very talented family of engravers. He was an apprentice of his father’s, who was Engraver to the King. From a very early age, Charles showed so much talent that he was given important commissions from the age of 16. He soon found that he enjoyed the smaller works best and developed into a well-known book illustrator. Starting out as a ‘topographical’ engraver of landscapes and scenes, Charles soon moved on to figure and portrait engraving, and it is especially that type of work in which was to show his excellence. His work for Sir Walter Scott’s novels in particular, are among his best known works. Charles Heath ran his own atelier and, wanting to keep control over his work, even published his own illustrated literary annual. By then, he had raised two of his sons to be excellent engravers in their own right, whereas a third son would become a well-known miniature painter. Despite the fame of the Heath family, and Charles’ large output of work, he was always in financial difficulties.

In the 1830s, a time when he delegated more and more work to his two sons Frederick and Alfred, Charles Heath became involved in engraving bank notes. Together with Jacob Perkins, Charles founded the company Perkins Fairman & Heath, who started engraving banknotes with the newly developed technique of printing with steel plates rather than copper plates. The steel plates lasted longer and new plates could be made from one original steel plate. This new technique made it possible to print an almost unlimited number of identical banknotes (or stamps!). It is through that work that Charles and his son Frederick were also given the opportunity to engrave the world’s first stamp: the Penny Black. These were printed by the same company, which by then was called Perkins, Bacon and Petch, after Bacon had bought Charles Heath’s stake in the company.

The engraving was based upon a sketch by Henry Corbould (who was married to Charles Heath’s daughter Fanny) of the 1837 Wyon City medal. The portrait would be placed upon a field including the anti-counterfeit characteristics which the Heath family had already adopted on their banknotes: the white engine-turned lines.

All subsequent engraved Victorian stamps of Great Britain were based upon the engraving of the Penny Black. The ½d of 1858 was the only exception to this. As it was of a different format, the original portrait of Victoria could not be used. The halfpenny was engraved in 1858 by Charles’ son Frederick only, for Charles had died rather unexpectedly in 1848.

Frederick went on to engrave a stamp for New South Wales as well, in December 1859. The colony’s government had contacted Perkins, Bacon & Co to ask if they could design a stamp for them which would defy forgers. The eventual design, also by a Corbould, but this was Henry’s son Edward Henry, would make use, just like the British Penny Black, of engine-turned lines for the background, with an engraved portrait of Queen Victoria in a coin design as main image. It proved such a successful stamp that it remained in use for nearly three decades, and when finally replaced in 1888, it would be reissued in 1897.

This article was first published in Stamp and Coin Mart of December 2012 and is reproduced with their kind permission. 


After the background of what was to become the penny black had been prepared by the printers, Charles Heath was employed to engrave the portrait of Victoria. With this he was helped by his son Frederick Heath. The first die was ready mid January 1840. This first die was later rejected because the background was too light. A second die was completed on 23 January 1840. This die was accepted and became known as Die I.

When it was found that a deeper cut die was needed, Heath's portrait was retouched by William Humphrys in 1854. This die has become known as Die II.

Alfred Jones' engraving of the 1851 Prince Albert definitive for Canada was based on an engraving by W.H. Egleton which was executed under the superintendence of Charles Heath and which was based on a drawing by W. Drummond.


Great Britain, Definitives

Great Britain, Definitive

Great Britain, Definitives (except 1/2d)


- Stanley Gibbons Great Britain Volume 1 Queen Victoria Specialised Stamp Catalogue, Eleventh edition (1997)

- The Encyclopaedia of British Empire Postage Stamps, Volume V, North America (1973)

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