Stamp Design

In 1840, the first adhesive postage stamp in the world, the Penny Black, was issued in Great Britain. It was a black 1d (one old pence) stamp featuring the head of Queen Victoria.


This type of design continued for the next 120 years, with the head of the reigning King or Queen being the main image on the stamp. Today, the Post Office still issues stamps of this style, which are known as ‘definitives’.

You can see the definitive stamp of King Charles III in our new temporary exhibition The King’s Stamp until 3 September 2023.

The Penny Black, a sepia stamp with a side facing portrait of Queen Victoria in middle, and a blue '9d' stamp showing a print Edward VII's face side-on.
On the left is a red 1 and a half pence stamp with a drawing of the bearded king in the4 middle. The pattern around his head is very ornate. In contrast the stamp on the right has no pattern at all. It is Green with the King's head in the middle.
George V and Edward VIII definitives.
King George looks young in his image on the stamp. The stamp is a dark purple with a drawing of a crown at the top and various flowers in the corners. Elizabeth's 1st class stamp has no pattern, it is simply gold, her bust is cream.
George VI and Elizabeth II definitives.


A different style of design was used very occasionally to mark a special event. These issues are known as ‘commemorative stamps’. In 1964, The Post Office took the decision to issue more commemorative stamps each year. The stamps were intended to:

  • Celebrate events of national and international importance.
  • Commemorate important anniversaries.
  • Reflect the British contribution to world affairs including the arts and sciences.
  • Extend public patronage to the arts by encouraging the development of minuscule art.

Usually Royal Mail issue approximately 13 sets of stamps on different themes each year.

We can see two stamps side by side. One is an old stamp, with a lined drawing of the middle aged bearded king, looking side on, next to a roaring lion. On the other stamp is a print of R2D2, a cylinder shaped blue and white robot.

British Empire Exhibition, 1924, and Star Wars, 2017.