A closer look at the Roland Svensson views of Tristan


When was the last time you looked at the stamps in your collection? I don’t mean browsed. I mean really looked. Examined. Pondered their nuances and themes in every detail? If you’re like me, it’s been way too long. So here’s a challenge: I invite you to pull out those leather-bound albums (dusty as they may be), turn to your Tristan commemoratives and consider four sets of stamps featuring the artwork of Roland Svensson.

Roland who?

Roland Svensson was a Swedish artist and writer who, like many of us, accidentally stumbled on an account of Tristan da Cunha and fell in love with the idea of this impossibly remote and strangely idyllic island. In 1963 when the M/V Bornholm headed for Tristan, on return voyage with the islanders evacuated from the 1961 eruption, there was one outsider joining them – Svensson. Subsequently, the intrepid Swede made several more trips to Tristan, during which he recorded his impressions of this “loneliest island in the world” in a series of sketches and paintings.

Got your magnifying glass ready? Okay, let’s go in for a closer look.

In 1972, the first set of Svennson renderings graced Tristan stamps. Appropriately, they featured an essential element of the island’s culture: the hand-crafted longboats in which the bounties of the sea were caught. Note the stamps that came before these. Of the 20-plus sets issued since the first Tristan stamps appeared in 1952, the Svensson longboat series is one of the first not to bear the face or silhouette of Queen Elizabeth. Arguably, these four lovely stamps are also the first truly artistic impressions to be shown of Tristan life. And how austere and prosaic they are, not unlike the 360 men, women and children who lived on Tristan at that time.

The first scene, entitled “Longboats,” depicts six men launching a boat into the rough, blue South Atlantic. All six men wear drab brown work clothes, same color as the rocky soil, in stark contrast to the cheerful blue, red and white of the boat. Drawn with a sketchy lack of detail, the men are indistinguishable – indeed, all their faces are turned away – a testament to the group ethic, the importance of working together, vital to the survival of the people of Tristan.

In the second stamp, “Under Oars,” two young Tristanians are seen powering through the blue, a third man hidden behind them. As in the stamp that precedes it, and the two that follow, women are conspicuously absent. (Clearly, the island’s female population no more belonged in the longboats than the men belonged in the village “cardin’ parties,” where wool was prepared for weaving.) We see more detail in the men here, their pant legs rolled up for business, gazing in opposite directions with sentinel-like intensity, suggesting the importance of their mission.

The third stamp, “Coxswain,” depicts a single, weather-beaten elder steering the boat through rough waves. Again, Svensson’s prosaic style complements the rugged yet heroic character of the Tristan people. Like a soldier going to battle, the coxswain grips his steer oar with stoic resolve.

A splash of white against blue is featured in the final pane of the quartet. As its title suggests, “Under Sail” shows the longboat now keeling, sails full and straining in the wind, its tireless crew heading away through the angry whitecaps so common to the waters around Tristan. Where the men are going remains a mystery…perhaps to catch the prized crawfish indigenous to Tristan, perhaps to collect guano from nearby Nightingale Island. But the collective determination depicted in the four stamps hints that their mission will be a success.

Now we move to the second of Svensson’s four views of Tristan, the Cottage Series, issued in 1976.

Here again we see a quartet of stamps. But how much more colorful they are! If the flat and muted longboat series is about survival, the struggle of the human experience on Tristan, the Cottage stamps are about the intrinsic natural beauty of the island itself.

In the first stamp, valued at 3p, we see a charming, stone-walled path leading to one of Tristan’s thatch-roofed cottages. A profusion of wildflowers can be seen behind a simple white gate, probably cow pudding and sand flowers, judging from their yellows and reds. Intriguingly, no islanders are present, not even a bird or dragonfly for that matter. And judging from the bright shadows on the wall, it’s one of those rare days on Tristan when the clouds have parted to let the sun peek through.

The weather appears more inclement, but more typical of Tristan, in the 5p stamp. But the colors are no less dramatic, the wispy multi-colored sky contrasting beautifully with the sweeping orangey-green of Edinburgh Settlement. In the background looms the ominous form of the extinct volcano that erupted in 1961, causing the evacuation of the entire population of Tristan. It sits there as a reminder that it could happen again, but also that the islanders chose – indeed, fought — to return to this harsh world they call home, rather than continue to live in England with all its “modern” comforts. Having seen one of the cottages in the first stamp, we now see three, giving us a different perspective…

But it’s only when we see the 10p stamp, a view from out at sea, that we realize the settlement of cottages is actually perched on a tiny spit of land on the northern tip of the island. The stormy blues and purples of the scene serve to underscore the fact that Tristan da Cunha is arguably the most isolated, inhabited place on Earth.

Then, before our spirits can be dampened by this sobering fact, the pastels return in the 20p stamp – a sunny birds-eye view, looking down on the cottages from atop the volcano. Since I began collecting stamps at age 10, I’ve always believed that the final stamp in a set, the one with the highest postage value, is also the most important. If so, Svensson perhaps is saying with this final image of the cottages of Tristan, “Yes, it’s lonely…yes, it’s a difficult life…but in the end, the exquisite nature of this place is what triumphs.”

Before the volcano erupted in 1961, the people of Tristan lived in a virtual time warp. No cars, no electricity, none of the trappings of the modern world. But when they returned in 1963, things changed. Some of those changes are evident in Svensson’s third “Artist’s View of Tristan Da Cunha,” issued in 1978. A clue to the theme lies in the industrial brown sketch at the top of the souvenir sheet, entitled, “The Fishing Factory at Tristan”, which stands in stark contrast to the first three stamps in the series.

The 5p stamp, a view of the only church on the island, St. Mary’s, echoes the pastoral beauty and tranquility of the first and last Cottage stamps. But here the colors are more realistic. So are the details. Gone are the impressionistic brush strokes that Svennson used to suggest the anachronistic beauty of Tristan. While the beauty remains, it is no longer romanticized here. And while the absence of people lent warmth to the Cottage Stamps, it gives the stamps of this later series an intrinsic coldness, perhaps a portent of the mixed blessing that modernization would mean for Tristan.

In the 10p stamp, entitled “Longboats,” only a single boat is visible. Strangely, it appears to be tethered to a bed of rocks with no water in sight. Possibly it’s low tide and the rising ocean is unseen in the foreground.…or perhaps the concepts of ownership and locking things up have finally come to this little island where there was no need for them before. The distinctive colors of the vessel – white with blue and red trimming — recall the longboat in Svennson’s first series. Yet how different they look in this different context.

The third stamp, “A Tristan Home,” again strives to show the bucolic serenity of Tristan. Its greens and yellows match those in the St. Mary’s stamp, which sits directly above it in the souvenir sheet…

And then comes a shocker. Simply titled “The Harbour 1970,” the fourth stamp in the series is a jarring paean to progress: a graphic depiction of Tristan’s modern new harbour, complete with bright-red loading crane. It doesn’t fit. In fact, it’s downright disturbing. But as it is the concluding image in the quartet, it defines the others. In no uncertain terms, Svensson is issuing a warning: as efficient and desirable as the harbour may be, it could spell the beginning of the end for Tristan…

And so we’re left with a cliffhanger. How will Svensson resolve it in his fourth and final series?

As with all great works of art, the answer is open to interpretation.

At first glance, Svensson’s last quartet is wonderfully reassuring, a return to the celebration of nature that epitomized the Cottage Stamps. Moreover, the images have a softer style that reminds one of the Longboat series, but without the flatness.

The 5p stamp is a study in blue, showing a lone longboat with bright yellow sails faring past the iceberg-like cliffs of nearby Stoltenhoff Island.

Entitled “Nightingale From the East”, the second stamp depicts the equally imposing bluffs of Nightingale Island. Not a sign of life.

The third stamp, “The Administrator’s Abode,” features the blue-roofed residence of the appointed governor of Tristan, looking tiny and vulnerable in the shadow of the volcano that once decimated the Settlement.

And rounding out the quarter is “Ridge Where The Goat Jump Off,” a stamp honoring a local landmark on the eastern side of Tristan, one of many with such colorful names.

Four enchanting scenes of a lovely little island in the South Atlantic, seemingly unspoiled by the ravages of “civilization.” And yet we know better. We know that just out of sight are the bustling harbour, the fishing factory. Indeed, since this last series was issued in 1986, roads have been built, cars and trucks have been shipped in, while satellite phones and the Internet have made Tristan’s defining isolation a thing of the past.

So what exactly is Svensson trying to tell us?

I think it’s just this: Keep looking. Be vigilant. Examine each stamp you add to your collection with childlike fascination. For, by pondering every nuance and theme in these tiny gummed slips of paper, you’ll come to know the true story of Tristan…a story that continues to unfold.

By Paul Margolis

This article was published in South Atlantic Chronicle –

The Journal of the St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society