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’.

A different style of design was used very occasionally to mark a special event. These issues are known as ‘commemorative stamps’. For example, in 1935 a special stamp was put on sale to celebrate King George V’s Silver Jubilee, and in 1948 a stamp was produced to commemorate the Olympic Games held that year in London.

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;
  • and extend public patronage to the arts by encouraging the development of minuscule art.

Usually Royal Mail issues approximately eight sets of stamps on different themes each year. For the Millennium celebrations (1999-2001), however, a new set of stamps were issued each month.

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. The only real limitation on the design itself is that it must not depict any living person other than members of the Royal Family.

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. They 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, Lynton Lamb, and David Hockney.

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 wise man, designed by children, were used.

In general, the themes of British stamps include the arts, history, science, industry, flora and fauna, transport and architecture.

Selecting 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.

There are only two rules which have to be followed when designing a special stamp. The stamp has to have the head of the queen or king, and also show the postage value.

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. The ideal size of artwork is no more than four times the size of a stamp, but artists can work at any size they choose. Many different art forms may be used to create the image on a stamp including photography, painting, graphics, cartoons, sculpture and collage.

But 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.

Royal Approval

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 the Post Office and the Stamp Advisory Committee, it is shown to the Queen for approval. Once given, printing can begin.

So, some five years after the initial ideas, the stamps arrive in post offices across the country to be sold to the public for the posting of their letters or for adding to their stamp collections.

  • British stamps

    Our collection comprises registration sheets, essays (trial stamps) and proofs of all stages of British stamp production from 1840 to the present day.

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