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.

Definitive

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’.

Queen Victoria and Edward VII definitives
George V and Edward VIII definitives.
George VI and Elizabeth II definitives.

Commemorative

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.

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.

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.

Issued designs by children for Christmas 1966

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, Eric Gill, Tracey Emin, Howard Hodgkin and David Hockney.

Stamp designs by Eric Morecambe and Howard Hodgkin, showing a cartoon and poppies.

Designs by Gerald Scarfe and Howard Hodgkin.

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

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.

Approved Essays for the stamp issue Dogs from 1979.

Also of interest

    • 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
    • Collection
    • 20 May 2016

    Arts & Crafts & Stamps

    For many years, stamp designs have provided a showcase for other crafts. Curatorial Assistant Georgina picks a few of her favourites...

    Read more