Just a few sentimental weeks ago we were reminiscing about Sean Connery’s role in the Bond movie ‘Goldfinger’, where we marvelled at the seemingly mystical, gravitational pull there is towards Geneva, and certainly back then our Prussian Blue cover fitted our assertion. However, today our featured World Rarity, ‘The Black Empress’, is going to tip that pronouncement on its head, quite literally on it’s Chalon head. Because one of the rarest Canadian postage stamps in existence, the ‘unique’ 1851 12d Black unmounted mint example, is playing a lead role in our upcoming MSF Charity Auction, owes its origins to a man from Geneva who lived his life in London.

Alfred Chalon (1780 to 1860) was a Swiss born portrait painter, who’s work attracted the eye of Queen Victoria so much so that she commissioned him to paint her portrait for a gift she gave to her mother, which ultimately became the basis of the Queen’s head used on the postage stamp engraved for this Candian icon and also for many of the British colonies, known philatelically as ‘The Chalon Head’. 

The original portrait shows Queen Victoria wearing her State robes, the Garter sash and the George IV State Diadem, standing on a terrace, at the occasion of her first official act, which was the closing of the Parliamentary session on 17 July 1837.  Apparently Chalon made an initial sketch of the Queen and then produced three similar paintings. The first, we’ll call the ‘original’, was gifted to the Queen’s mother as planned, and presented to her a month later on 17 August 1837, and the other two copies formed gifts for the then King of Prussian and the King of Portugal.

The Prussian example was apparently indiscriminately destroyed by an RAF raid during World War II, and the Portugal copy made its way back to the UK when the King of Portugal’s successor, King Manuel, abdicated in 1910 and came to England. Incredibly this copy was later sold to a philatelic king, Robson Lowe, in 1947. His interest in this archetypal painting needs no explanation. The original was given to the Prince Consort, by the Duchess of Kent (the Queen’s Mum), and after Prince Albert’s premature death in 1861 was then gifted to King Leopold I of Belgium, who died in 1865. I’m sure these two deaths aren’t in any way related to the painting, but it does make you wonder if the next owner faired any better. He did, thankfully. Whilst it is now hanging in the Belgian Royal Collection it was initially passed to King Leopold II. But, hang-on, if you know your Chalon Head’s then you might be asking how come the ‘original’ painting made a cameo appearance at the 1897 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Exhibition at the Royal Academy, and the answer comes not from the world of philately but the world of art, who inform us it was loaned courtesy of Leopold II, and immediately after the exhibition left the British shores once more.

Chalon on the other hand stayed in England and the original sketch he used to develop the three paintings never left his adopted island and was discovered ironically by a British stamp collector and sold to Cyril Harmer, a London based stamp auctioneer.

The other irony here, apart from Albert Chalon defying the Swiss gravity, is that his original portrait painting of the eighteen year old Queen Victoria is actually a colourful affair, full of radiant hues and adorned in rich red and gold, and captures her in that magical ‘youthful’ moment in time. Yet ‘The Black Empress’, produced in 1851, a direct descendant of Chalon’s portrait, somehow encapsulates the whole story of Queen Victoria’s reign; because we philatelists know that she took the throne as a fresh faced teenage princess in 1837, but spent half her life as the Queen who wore ‘black’, being in a state of mourning from 1861 to 1901.  Queen Victoria is no longer with us, but the finest mint example in the world of this stamp is, and crucially has a mystical, gravitational pull on the very essence of her reign. The Black Empress is today, amusingly, in Geneva. A sentimental few weeks ago we proclaimed all that is allusive and prized in this world gets sent to Geneva. You see it’s true, it’s just Chalon who turned that on its head.