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.

How topics for stamps are chosen

Royal Mail researchers study anniversaries or events that will occur in five years’ time. They then work with the Royal Mail Design Department to come up with ten suitable subjects that have to be of national importance with a uniquely British aspect. You can also send in your requests for stamp issues to Royal Mail.

Designing the Stamp

Once the topic for an issue has been decided, about four designers are chosen to work on producing designs for the selected topic. The designers could be people who have much experience of stamp design or none at all. Whatever the medium of the original artwork, the design eventually has to be reduced to the size of a stamp and so designers have to be careful that their work will reduce effectively to a small size.

Many different art forms may be used to create the image on a stamp including photography, painting, graphics, cartoons, sculpture and collage. Designers work closely with the Design Department of Royal Mail to produce a finished stamp design. Many famous artists have been chosen to design stamps including David Gentleman, Arnold Machin, Tracey Emin, Howard Hodgkin and David Hockney.

The Morcambe stamp is white, with a cartoon waiter leaning in from the left hand side, dressed in a waistcoat and dickie bow, adjusting his glasses. The second stamp had red paint splodges all over, it looks like have been done using fingers or toes. They are meant to look like poppies.

Designs by Gerald Scarfe and Howard Hodgkin.

Interview with David Gentleman

Watch The Postal Museum’s Senior Curator of Philately Douglas N. Muir chat to artist David Gentleman about stamp design.

Stamp Function

A stamp is more than just a piece of artwork; it has to perform a function. Some colours on the artwork may have to be adapted so that the sorting machines used to process letters can read the hidden phosphor marking on the stamp which is used to separate first from second class mail (i.e. large areas of yellow and green can obscure this phosphor banding).

Furthermore, within a ‘set’ each stamp has to be easily identifiable from the others so that Post Office sorters and counter clerks can tell the value of the stamp at a glance.

There are only two stamp rules:

  • It must have the head of the queen or king
  • It must show the postage value

David Gentleman Cameo Head, 1966

Christmas Stamps

Each year, one of the sets of stamps is always issued on the theme of Christmas. The tradition of having special Christmas stamps in this country began in 1966 when pictures of a snowman and a king, designed by children, were used.

These stamps are clearly drawn by children. One, of a snowman with a red scarf, pink had a black gloves, has a blue and white snowy backdrop. The other stamp has a felt-tip drawing of a King, wearing a crown adorned with green and red jewels. The background is red and blue.

Issued designs by children for Christmas 1966

The Final Design

The finished stamp designs are shown to the Stamp Advisory Committee. This committee includes people from a number of fields such as; art, design and philately. They help to decide which of the submitted designs should be used for the stamp issue.

Once the stamp design is finished a proof or ‘essay’ is printed. This shows what the finished stamp will look like at actual size. If necessary, changes to the design can be made at this stage. When the final essay has been approved by Royal Mail and the Stamp Advisory Committee, it is shown to the Queen for approval. Once given, printing can begin.

There are 4 images of different dog breeds here. Two of the dogs sit, facing the front, and two stand proudly to the side. The White Westie has its tongue out. Two of the dogs are white and brown in colour and the other is brown all over. All dogs sit in front of a countryside backdrop.

An essay of dog stamp designs, 1979.