Musings for November 2020

                     Arnold Machin O.B.E. R.A

              - the most reproduced artist ever?

With lockdown restricting everyone’s lives it has been difficult to visit any galleries, museums or heritage sites – the usual sources for my musings.  SVAG’s musing for September, written by Denise West, about the art work on bank notes, usefully pointed out that we are surrounded by outstanding art and design: for example, on postage stamps.

Pre paid adhesive postage stamps, for use in a public postage system, are a British invention and the first one – the iconic Penny Black - was the world's first adhesive stamp for use in a public postage system.  It was first issued in May 1840 and featured the profile of Queen Victoria – setting the format for all future British definitive stamps.

The Penny Black is iconic and very collectable.  It was in use for one year.  To put that in perspective nearly 69 million were printed and people started collecting stamps as soon as they appeared.  Universal postage proved to be an important development that revolutionised communications and helped create the modern world.  


Image:  Robert Scott

Penny Black 1840


The colour was changed in 1841, to red, when it was discovered that red postmarks could be removed from the black stamp.


Image: Robert Scott

Red Penny 1841


Move forward 112 years and Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952.  From the beginning of her reign British definitive stamps were designed using a photograph taken by Dorothy Wilding.  This image was a shoulder length profile.  Unfortunately stamp designers found this image difficult to include in their designs.  It was even proposed to remove the queen’s head from stamp designs. However the Queen did not approve this suggestion so it was decided a new effigy was needed.


Image: Robert Scott

Dorothy Wilding definitives 1952 to 1967


In 1965 Arnold Machin was chosen from 4 artists invited to submit designs for a new definitive stamp.  Before this he had designed coins so his initial idea was to use his coin portrait - turning it from right to left.

This started a very complex development process.  Machin was aiming for a design that would have as much appeal as the original Penny Black.  He made a bas relief (or low relief) in clay of his intended image. This is similar to the decoration on pottery such as Wedgewood, particularly if the image is combined with a different coloured background.  It was photographed by John Hedgecoe.  The original design only showed the Queen’s head but she wanted the image extended to include the top of her dress.  Machin enhanced the design by changing the crown and the shading on the face to produce a three dimensional effect.  In consultation with the Queen the design changed again to include a diadem and a necklace.  The final design was chosen by the Queen.  


 Image: Robert Scott

First Machin design issued 5 June 1967


Machin’s design has been used on all British stamps since 1967.  There have been suggestions that the image should be updated but these suggestions have been declined by the Queen.  She is "very content with the Machin effigy”. 

So far, Machin’s design is the most re-produced and iconic artwork ever.  It has been used over 320 billion times in over five thousand variations.


Robert Scott

November 2020




Print Print | Sitemap
© Sheffield Visual Arts Group