Designing a Royal Stamp

From Queen Victoria to King Charles III we explore nearly 200 years of Royal stamp design.

The accession of King Charles III marks a monumental change to British stamps which featured the late Queen Elizabeth II for over 70 years.

With the introduction of the King’s new stamp, Deputy Curator Georgina looks back at how stamps have been designed and created since the 19th Century and the influence these early designs have today.

Queen Victoria

The postage stamp was invented by Rowland Hill in 1840, transforming the post by making it much simpler and cheaper.

Queen Victoria was on the throne for the introduction of the stamp and her portrait featured on the first design. The first stamps, known as the Penny Black, were created by the London printers Perkins, Bacon & Petch. They were valid for use on the 6 May 1840 and the history of British stamps began.

Unlike other countries, Britain doesn’t have the country’s name on the stamp. Instead, the head of the monarch represents the nation.

The portrait of Queen Victoria used on the Penny Black was taken from an 1837 medal by William Wyon (2016-0049)
A very old envelope with the Penny Black stuck on to it. The stamp is black with a sepia portrait of a young Queen Victoria in the middle. (POST 141/04/03)
Letter with a Penny Black on the first day of use, 6 May 1840. (POST 141/04/03)

A portrait was chosen for the first stamp, as it was believed by Rowland Hill and others that a face would be difficult to forge. Queen Victoria’s image was based on a medal, showing her at the age of 15.

Victoria lived until she was 81 but, throughout her life, her portrait on British stamps never changed.

King Edward VII

King Edward VII was the first King to have his own stamp.

There were discussions between the Inland Revenue and the Postmaster General around which way his portrait should face. On coins, the position of the monarch’s head changes, facing the opposite direction to the King or Queen before them; a tradition that reaches back to the 17th century. However this was not followed on stamps. Instead the monarch faces left, so when stuck down they look into the envelope.

  • In our collection we have a letter from the Inland Revenue to George H.Murray sent on 12 February 1901.

    It discusses the direction of the King’s portrait on stamps.

    “the Board would suggest that the practice usually adopted with the coinage of reversing the profile on a change of reign […] need not be followed in the case of stamps. It appears to the Board that the profile looking to the left has advantages which render its adoption desirable, viz:-  (1) that it does not seem to look out of the envelope to which the stamp is affixed”

  • A typed letter which reads "“the Board would suggest that the practice usually adopted with the coinage of reversing the profile on a change of reign […] need not be followed in the case of stamps. It appears to the Board that the profile looking to the left has advantages which render its adoption desirable, viz:- (1) that it does not seem to look out of the envelope to which the stamp is affixed"

    Letter discussing the direction of the monarch’s head, 1901. (POST 30/991)

Initial designs for the new stamp produced by the printers were not liked by the King. Instead, he suggested the Austrian artist Emil Fuch’s portraits be used. The King granted Fuchs a sitting and this profile image became the final design.

Towards the end of Edward VII’s reign a new stamp design was produced that would be printed in a single colour: ‘Tyrian Plum’, a shade of purple chosen for 2d (two-penny) stamps.

The King died before the stamps were issued so the Postmaster General decided they should be destroyed.

A hand drawn black and white image of the King's head, from the neck up.
The die is a silver metal square with the Tyrian Plumb stamp engraved although in reverse so that when stamped the text and King's image were the right way around.
Tyrian Plum stamp metal printing die and printed stamp, 1910. (OB1998.1196)

The Postal Museum holds the only two sheets in existence, making them some of the rarest stamps in the world.


King George V

King George V was a keen stamp collector and very much interested in the design of his first stamp.

The first portrait of George V for stamps was by court photographers W.D. Downey. The design features the King with his head at a three-quarter angle, with both eyes visible, unlike the profile images of the last two monarchs.

The stamps produced were poor quality due to the inexperience of the printers. They were widely criticised in national newspapers and the King’s private secretary wrote to the Post Office to express his disappointment.

A black and white photograph of the King wearing a very formal outfit adorned with medals. You can see both his eyes. He has a thick beard and moustache with curled tips. His stamp, next to his portrait is green and says 'halfpenny' at the bottom.

Portrait of King George V by photographer W.D. Downey and issued stamp, c.1911. (KGV/01/35)

An alternative image was required, this time produced by the Australian artist Bertram Mackennal. Mackennal had already designed coins and medals and it was these portraits that were used as models for the new profile portrait. The Mackennal head would go on to be used on British stamps until the end of George V’s reign in 1936.

British Empire Exhibition commemorative stamp, 1924

George V was the first monarch to have a commemorative stamp. There are two main types of British stamps: definitives, everyday stamps that just feature the head of the monarch, and commemoratives, which have pictures celebrating an event or theme.

The first commemorative design was released in 1924 to mark the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley, London. The event aimed to show the British public the supposed benefits of empire.

King Edward VIII

King Edward VIII was on the throne for less than a year before he abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Within that time new definitive stamps were designed and issued. Initial images showed the monarch in full regimental attire. However a more simplistic design would eventually be created.

A young philatelist (stamp collector) Hubert Brown wrote to the Post Office asking for permission to send in a design for the new stamp. His pencil sketch features a portrait of the King with a crown and the value in the top corners. This design would be hugely influential to the final stamp.

The King wears a very ornate outfit in this black and white photograph. He is wearing a kilt, lots of medals and holding furry hat.
A hand drawn sketch of the side profile of the King on a stamp. The stamp text says 'Three pence' at the bottom and postage revenue down the sides.
Pencil sketch of a King Edward VIII stamp by Hubert Brown, 1936. (KEVIII/01/26a)
A side by side comparison of the photograph of the King that inspired the blue postage stamp.
Portrait of King Edward VIII by Hugh Cecil and issued stamp, 1936. (BP/001/023A)

The layout of Brown’s design was tested with a portrait of the King by Hugh Cecil. The design was preferred by the King and, with a few alterations, became the issued stamp.

Hubert Brown was never paid or publicly acknowledged for his work but a letter to him from the Post Office references the similarities between the designs.

King George VI

King George VI’s stamps had to be produced quickly to be available for his coronation, which remained the same date as set for his brother.

The King decided that he wanted his stamps to generally follow the style of his brother but to be slightly more ornate. The artists chosen to submit designs for the portrait were issued with a photograph by Bertram Park of the King in profile.

The king wears a pinstriped suit, white shirt and black tie in this black and white photograph. He is facing the left so you can only see his left-side profile.
Issued Definitive Stamps of King George VI, 1937

One of the artists working on the new stamp, Edmund Dulac, believed he could produce a better portrait. His design of the King’s head, which is no longer in existence, would be used on all George VI definitive stamps. Adorning the King’s portrait were emblems of the four nations: rose, thistle daffodil and shamrock.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, after the death of her father George VI.

During her reign two portraits of the late Queen were used on definitive stamps. The first was a three-quarter photograph taken by court photographer Dorothy Wilding. The portrait worked well on definitive stamps but artists found it difficult to fit the large portrait into their commemorative stamp designs.


In this black and white photograph of the Queen, of her face from the neck up, she is wearing a crown, pearl earrings and a necklace. The red issued stamp is pictured next to the photograph showing a grainy image of the same portrait.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Dororthy Wilding and Issued Stamp, 1952. (QEII/LVW/1/007D)

In the 1960s a new portrait was produced by the sculptor Arnold Machin. His sculpted profile head of the Queen was photographed for use on the stamp.

The first stamp to feature the new portrait was produced in an Olive Sepia Brown colour to reference the dark tones of the Penny Black. This portrait was used for the rest of Elizabeth’s reign and became an iconic image of the Queen.

On the left we show a plaster head of HM the Queen. It is a side profile image, we can see the Queen is wearing a crown, earrings and a necklace. The Black and Sepia stamp next to the plaster image shows the same portrait of the Queen.
Two brightly coloured commemorative stamps, once with the post office tower and one only has colours lines on it, with a silhouette of the Queen's head in the top left hand side.
Commemorative stamps with the Wilding portrait (left) and the cameo portrait (right) 1965 & 1999

Instead of incorporating the Wilding portrait into commemorative stamps a new cameo image of the Queen was used. This smaller less invasive image could be used on either the right or left top corner of the stamp.

Commemorative stamps can take years to be designed and printed. Numerous artists or design agencies are asked to submit concepts for a specific stamp set. Royal Mail with their Stamp Advisory Committee, made up of artists and printing experts, work to develop the designs and select the final image.

King Charles III

King Charles III’s stamp strongly references the Queen Elizabeth Machin design in its simplicity. The profile of the monarch’s head, facing left, and the value is all that features on the stamp.

The design is based on the portrait created for coins by Martin Jennings. This sculpted image was then photographed and digitally relit to be used on stamps.

Purple 1st stamp of King Charles. A new addition is the barcode, which sits to the right of the main stamp. King Charles head, with no crown, sits in the middle of the stamp.

1st Class Stamp of King Charles III

The first set of stamps to be issued, 1st Class, 2nd Class, 1st Class Large and 2nd Class Large, continue to be produced in the same colours used on the late Queen’s stamps. Elizabeth’s stamps will still be distributed until stocks run out to prevent waste. As a result, British stamp buyers for a time will use stamps from both monarch’s reigns.