BIOGRAPHY: Charles Heath

Charles Theodosius Heath (1785-1848) was born into an engraver’s family. His father, James Heath, was an engraver at the court of King George III. James started teaching his son the art of engraving at a very early age. Early work has survived from when Charles was only six years old! Almost inevitably, Charles also carved out a career in the engravers business, and he played an influential part in the development of the illustrated literary annual, which was becoming all the rage at the time.

Starting out with landscapes, Charles soon acquired fame for his wonderful engravings illustrating the various published English classics, while his figure and portrait work, too, was of great excellence. Charles had his own studio in which he also employed two of his sons: Frederick and Alfred. Not only was Charles art editor and contributor to the main literary annuals of the day, he eventually went one step further and started publishing his own annual, called The Keepsake.

Despite this success, Charles had quite a chequered career, as he did not have a sound head for business. Verging on the edge of bankruptcy several times, Charles moved into security printing, and as part of Perkins, Fairman & Heath, he was jointly responsible for the first steel engraved dies for banknotes, which would facilitate a larger production of identical banknotes, because steel plates don’t wear as fast as copper plates do.

Through time, Perkins Fairman & Heath morphed into Perkins Bacon & Petch. In 1839, that company was approached about creating a die for adhesive stamps. The printers commissioned Charles Heath to engrave the portrait of Queen Victoria. By that time, Charles was wont to delegate most of his work to either his sons or other employed engravers, because of his failing eyesight. For this particular engraving, Charles enlisted the help of his son Frederick Heath.

A die was made by first laying down the engine-turned background. The centre part of it was then removed creating space for Charles Heath to engrave the portrait of Victoria. This first die was ready in January 1840. This die was rejected, mainly because of the background engine-turned engraving, which was thought to be too light. The lettering, too, which was different to what it eventually became, was not adopted. And it was thought the portrait was engraved a little too fine. That same month, work started on the second die which was completed on 23 January 1840. This die was accepted in February and has since become known as Die I. The Queen herself expressed her ‘high satisfaction’ with the engraved die.

The engraved head of Victoria was used for all subsequent Great Britain line-engraved issues, except of course for the halfpenny. Although, 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.

In 1865, the first requests for essays for a halfpenny stamp were made, but actual work on the eventual die did not start until 1870. It had been decided that the stamp would be in a smaller format, which meant that the existing engraving of the Queen’s head could not be used and a new engraving had to be commissioned. By that time, Charles Heath had passed away, so the job of engraving Victoria’s portrait fell to his eldest son Frederick.

You will find Charles Heath's database HERE.