This London Design Festival Deputy Curator Georgina looks at a design masterpiece by artist Harold Nelson.

The Wembley stamp is one of my favourite stamp designs and introduced me to the work of Harold Nelson. Here’s a brief history of the design and some amazing illustrations by the artist himself.


Up until 1924 Great Britain had not produced a commemorative stamp (a stamp to celebrate an event or occasion), however it was suggested that two stamps be produced for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. The King supported the idea only if a committee was selected that was competent to produce a successful stamp design. The committee consisted of the secretary of the GPO, members of different museums/schools of art and a representative of Buckingham Palace.

8 artists were asked to submit designs, where they had to follow certain guidelines such as; the denominations had to be 1½d or 1d, ‘British Empire Exhibition 1924’ had to appear and the design needed to be symbolic of the British Empire.

John D. Batten

Batten only submitted one design that depicted Britannia holding a trowel after laying a foundation stone baring the title. She is also wearing a naval crown and an anchor can be seen in the bottom left corner.

A sketch of Britannia holding a trowel with a rough profile of King George V in a oval.

Unadopted artwork, John D. Batten, February 1924

E.W. Tristram

Tristram submitted three designs, here focusing on a reclining Britannia holding a Union Jack shield and trident. In each corner of the landscape design you can see an animal that represents a part of the colonies. Mable leaf = Canada. Elephant = India. Kangaroo = Australasia. Springbok = Africa.

Black and white illustration of Britannia holding a shield and trident and a portrait of King George V in a circle.

Unadopted artwork, E.W. Tristram, February 1924.

Noel Rooke

Rooke used a similar stylistic approach but here he also acknowledges Britain, using a rose for England, Thistle for Scotland and the Shamrock for Ireland. Interestingly there is no daffodil for Wales which one would have expected to be used.

A red print of Rooke's design featuring entwined rope, symbols of the Colonies and a portrait of King George V in a circle.

Unadopted artwork, Noel Rooke, February 1924.

Harold Nelson

These are two alternative designs submitted by Nelson that were not selected, they refer to the British dominance over the sea with the inclusion of boats and dolphins.

Two black and white designs, one featuring boats and the other dolphins with the profile of King George V in a ring.

Unadopted designs, Harold Nelson, Jan/Feb 1924.


After reviewing the artwork the committee decided on the lion design by Nelson and the predominantly topographical design by Eric Gill, shown below. They both were asked to make some alterations to their designs and resubmit their work.

Profile sketch of King George V in a circle surrounded by the text with the value in number and word format.

Unadopted artwork, Eric Gill, Jan/Feb 1924

As you can see from left to right the landscape the lion is standing on has changed. Nelson was asked to place the lion on land rather than at sea. You would expect a lion to be stood on land but again this was a stylistic decision to show British naval dominance.

Left is a blue illustration of a lion standing in the sea, whereas on the right the black and white image places the lion on land.

Before and after alterations, Harold Nelson, Jan/Feb 1924

Kings Approval

The King was very pleased with Nelson’s lion design but did not approve of Gills work. Instead he admired Nelson’s other submission of St George and the Dragon. However, this would mean giving both designs to one artist and instead it was decided to use the Lion piece for both values. It later became common place for one artist to produce all designs in a stamp issue.

Black and white illustration of St George on a rearing horse attacking a dragon with the profile of King George V in an oval.

Unadopted design of St George and the Dragon, Harold Nelson, Jan/Feb 1924

Nelson’s St George design would later be used in 1929 to commemorate the London Postal Union Congress.

The issued stamp featuring St George on a horse spearing a dragon with a shield hanging in a tree.

£1, issued Postal Union Congress London Stamp, 1929

Issued Stamps

Over 15 million stamps were produced by Waterlow and Sons to celebrate the exhibition becoming our first commemorative stamp. I hope you agree there is true beauty in Nelson’s work that started a great history of British commemorative design.

Two stamps depicting the lion design in red for the one penny value and in brown for the three halfpenny values.

Issued British Empire Exhibition stamp, 1924

See more stamp masterpieces on your visit, including the world’s first adhesive postage stamp – The Penny Black.

– Georgina Tomlinson, Deputy Curator (Philately)