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Literature Reviews

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A Timeless Classic: The Evolution of Machin’s Icon

(Posted January 21, 2008)

Cover of 'A Timeless Classic' Back of 'A Timeless Classic'

I’ve saved the best for first. Douglas N. Muir’s beautiful new book should be on every Machin collector’s shelf. It should also grace the shelf of anyone interested in stamp design and the difficulty of producing an exquisitely simple one.

Muir is Curator, Philately at the British Postal Museum & Archive. He’s been studying the history of the Machins for more than 20 years. He has given talks and published articles over that time, and now he has gathered all the published material, plus new information, into a gorgeous, well-illustrated full-color book.

The book’s cover is above left, a stunning reproduction of Machin’s portrait with no text to clutter it. I think Machin would be pleased. The back cover is on the right.

Muir starts at the beginning, with a brief history of the Penny Black, which served as Machin’s inspiration. (Several years ago, Muir wrote a book titled Postal Reform and The Penny Black: A New Appreciation. It is still available from the BPMA.) He follows that with a summary of the problems with the first Elizabethan definitives, the Wilding series.

There’s a brief biography of Arnold Machin and the story of Machin’s work on the portrait that was used on the first decimal coins. Machin, a sculptor by trade, had four sittings with the Queen during the development of the coin portrait. The coin design was completed in 1964, and the following year Machin was awarded an Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for his work. (Sadly, he was not recognized again for his work on the stamp, although the stamp portrait has long outlasted his coin portrait.) Because of the delay in converting to decimal currency, the first Machin stamps appeared a year before the first coins.

Of great importance in the book is a 50-page chapter titled “Off With Her Head!”. It describes the efforts of then Postmaster General, Tony Benn, to revolutionize stamp design and remove the Queen’s head as the identifier, at least on commemorative stamps. Benn thought that eliminating the portrait would permit better stamp designs that would raise the morale of the British people in addition to raising more revenue for the post office.

Benn, who wrote the Foreward for the book, was of course not successful in removing the Queen’s portrait altogether. However, in concert with designer David Gentleman, he had the full-sized portrait replaced with the small cameo that still graces British stamps today.

Benn also spearheaded the drive for a new definitive series. His efforts ultimately led to the stamps featuring Machin’s sculpted portrait, although he had been promoted to a different cabinet post by the time the Machins were issued.

16p Machin
16p Machin The book then tells the story of the development of the stamp. The stamp we now know as “the Machin”, with only the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and the denomination or service indicator, has about the simplest design possible. However, that simplicity belies the difficulty of creating a design so timeless that it is now referred to as an icon.

Arnold Machin was chosen on the basis of his work on the coin, and he used the coin image as the starting point for his work on the stamp. He took the Penny Black as his inspiration to create a new design with the same “simplicity, elegance, and authority.”

The process wasn’t a smooth one, and there were times when it appeared that Machin’s efforts would be abandoned in favor of a new photographic portrait. However, the quality of Machin’s work ultimately prevailed.

Muir also describes the work done to create the recess-printed high values and the small cameo head used for commemoratives. For the former, new photographs were taken of the existing plaster casts so that the engraver could create a satisfactory rendering.

For the cameo, Machin was hired to create a new cast. He simplified the design by replacing the diadem with a laurel wreath and added the ribbons at the back of the Queen’s head. The cast was then photographed at different sizes.

Finally, Muir describes the efforts in the 1980s to replace the Machin with a new design. The original idea was to have the new stamp ready for the 30th anniversary of the coronation, which would be in June, 1983. The work extended beyond that date, and ultimately it was decided, after consultation with the Queen, that there was no way to improve on Machin’s design. As a result, it is quite likely that the Machin design will remain in use as long as Queen Elizabeth II reigns.

Muir’s book is priced at £19.95 and is available from the British Postal Museum & Archive, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, London WC1X 0DL, U.K. It is also available from the philatelic bureau at Royal Mail Tallents House, 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh EH12 9PE, U.K. The shipping charge for ordering from the BPMA is less than from Royal Mail.


British Stamp Exhibitions: A Priced CD Catalogue of Sheets, Cards and Labels

(Posted February 9, 2008)

Cover of 'British Stamp Exhibitions' London 1980 Exhibition Sheet

Since Victorian times, it has been an accepted practice for the organizers of philatelic events to create a souvenir in the form of a sheet, card or label. The souvenir has a philatelic theme and is either given to visitors or sold for a nominal cost. You probably have seen some of these — many dealers have some in their stock.

These items are nice items to have — my souvenir copy of the 1882 £5 orange is the only one that will ever be in my collection. The souvenir sheet from the London 1980 International Stamp Exhibition is above on the right.

In 1995, Glenn Morgan published a printed catalogue with nearly 800 of these souvenir items. They were illustrated and had information about the sponsoring event. The catalogue also included the current market price for each of the items.

Last year, Graham Wilson teamed up with Glenn, brought the catalogue up to date and published it on a CD. There are now about 1200 items listed, and the vast majority of these are illustrated life-size in color. The home page of the CD is above on the left.

Below left is a listing from the catalogue. It describes the card sold at 1987 Autumn Stampex. Clicking the small image in the listing brings up a larger image, as shown on the right. The actual image on the CD is much larger than the one shown here.

Sample Listing from British Stamp Exhibitions Autumn Stampex 1987 Exhibition Sheet

The authors have also included a simple checklist that you can print and take to shows.

The CD is available for £16, postpaid worldwide, from Graham M. Wilson, Bulls Head Barn, Honeyholme Lane, Cliviger, Burnley, Lancs, BB10 4SR, U.K. The CD is updated every few months, and the latest version is always sent. Buyers may also exchange their CD for a newer version at any time for £8. Wilson does not accept credit cards, but he does accept PayPal. You can make payment to him or get more information from him at .

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Last update: February 9, 2008   Macintosh!
Copyright © 2008 by Larry Rosenblum; Stamp images Copyright © by Royal Mail