The Machin Design

Find out about the creation of one of the most recognisable designs of the 20th century.

Why did we need a new stamp?

Wilding Low Values. Issued July & August 1953.

  • Wilding definitive stamps

    From the beginning of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in 1952, our definitive stamps were based on a photo of Her Majesty by the photographer Dorothy Wilding. The image was a three-quarter shoulder length profile which stamp designers found difficult to accommodate within their designs. Due to this, you begin to see a move by Tony Benn and David Gentleman to remove the Queen’s head entirely from stamps. However, the Queen did not approve of this and it was decided another effigy was needed.

  • What’s a definitive stamp?

    A definitive stamp is a stamp that consists solely of the monarchs’ head. These are the standard red and blue first and second class stamps you use today.

Who was Arnold Machin?

Arnold Machin was born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1911, one of 12 children. He was apprenticed to decorate china and would later go on to work at the Old China Works and Wedgwood. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1956.

  • A early plaster cast by Arnold Machin of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a Tiara.

    Coinage Head by Arnold Machin March 1966.

  • Coinage Head

    In 1965 Arnold Machin along with 4 other artists were asked to submit designs for a new definitive stamp. Machin was asked to contribute because of his earlier work on coinage. He initially took his portrait for the coin and flipped the design so the Queen faced left. He then went on to produce this design in a plaster cast.


    Coins and Stamps

    The monarch’s head on coins flips from facing right to left as you change monarch, whereas on definitive stamps they always face left.

John Hedgecoe Photos

Even though Machin was already working on his effigy of the Queen, the SAC (Stamp Advisory Committee) requested that new photos be taken. She agreed to this and on the 22nd of June 1966 John Hedgecoe visited the palace to photograph Her Majesty. The images taken feature the Queen wearing the Diadem, rather than the Tiara you see above. This replicates the original Wilding Definitive and what Queen Victoria wears in the Penny Black.

Hedgecoe photographs, 1966.

Queen’s Handwriting

The annotation under the images is actually in the Queen’s own hand, who had a strong opinion on the photographs.

Diadem and Dressed Head

The photos taken by John Hedgecoe were sent to Arnold Machin. It was from these images he began to produce his next design wearing the Diadem. He included a necklace similar to what she wore during the photo-shoot. This plaster cast was produced in October 1966. Machin also produced an example of the effigy with a corsage which is commonly known as the ‘Dressed Head’. Essays were made of both designs and sent to the Queen. She was very happy with the design, but preferred the image with the corsage.

Can you spot the difference?

Machin’s casts based on Hedgecoe’s photographs.

First Stamp

The essays sent to the Queen were produced in numerous different colours. The Queen requested that the first stamp to be produced in the new design should be in an Olive Brown Sepia colour. This was to imitate the original stamp, the Penny Black. The first 4d stamp was issued on the 5th of June 1967, and since then the Machin design has been reproduced over 200 billion times.

4d Machin definitive issued 5 June 1967, and the Penny Black

An Icon

The Machin design is instantly recognisable and has become an icon of the British monarchy. Great Britain is the only country in the world where the name of the country doesn’t feature on the stamp. As the creators of the stamp, the image of our monarch denotes the country and since 1967 Arnold Machin’s image has been doing this.

Arnold Machin watching his stamps being printed at Harrisons.

Also of interest

  • Elizabeth II stamps

    Our collection of Elizabeth II registration sheets and stamp artwork illustrates the modern evolution of stamp design.

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    • Collection
    • 05 June 2017

    50th Anniversary of an Icon

    Assistant Curator Georgina tells us more about Arnold Machin, the artist who created one of the most recognisable designs of the 20th century.

    Read more