A new look for the first-class design

By Andrew Alderson, Chief Reporter and Tom Williams, Sunday Telegraph
The Telegraph

It is the world's most widely used image: the timeless picture of the Queen's head (external - login to view) that has appeared on 200 billion stamps in Britain and the Commonwealth.

The iconic plaster bust of Queen Elizabeth II created by sculptor Arnold Machin. Her profile on stamps (and coins) throughout Britain and the Commonwealth is the world's most widely used image

This week, new stamps will be released to mark the 40th anniversary of the unveiling of the iconic image designed by Arnold Machin, the accomplished sculptor.

The stamp design was based on the plaster bust of the Queen that Machin created, then photographed, so it could be used in silhouette as the image on Royal Mail stamps.

For security and conservation reasons, the bust, measuring 18in by 16in, is normally kept in the vaults of the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) in London.

Even the Queen is not thought to have seen it, although she did approve the stamp design before it was unveiled on a first class 4d stamp on June 5, 1967. It is understood that she has decided to keep the same design on Royal Mail stamps (external - login to view) for the rest of her reign.

The Machin image replaced the design of the first stamps of the Queen's reign issued in 1952 - a three-quarter profile photograph of her by Dorothy Wilding, which appeared on stamps until 1967.

A British 4d (fourpence) stamp of 1967

The Machin bust was first based on a photograph of Her Majesty taken by Lord Snowdon, the Queen's former brother-in-law. The initial intention was to have an image of the Queen wearing a tiara.

The world's first postage stamp was the Penny Black, first issued in 1840 in Britain, which had, of course, Queen Victoria's profile

Eventually, however, after further pictures were taken by John Hedgecoe, it was decided to use an image of the Queen with a more formal diadem. Approving the design, she described it as "admirable".

Machin produced other images of the Queen, which involved personal sittings, for the new decimal currency. At the time, they sparked controversy when Sir John Betjeman, the late Poet Laureate, suggested they made the Queen "look a bit sexy".

In the mid-Eighties, the Queen came under pressure to replace the Machin head with a modern design. After seeing five new designs, she relayed the message to the Royal Mail that she did not favour change just for the sake of it. Indeed, the Queen let it be known through her private office that she was "very content with the Machin effigy".

Machin, who died eight years ago, was paid a flat fee of 4,500 for his work on the stamps - the equivalent of 58,000 at today's values. In return, he surrendered all his rights to the design.

The new presentation pack of stamps, called the Machin Definitives' 40th Anniversary, will be released on Tuesday. The four stamps show a photograph of Machin, an image of the first 4d stamp issued in 1967, the traditional 1 stamp with the image of the Queen's head and a new ruby stamp, also worth 1. The Machin bust and other material relating to the stamp and coin designs of more than 40 years ago will be on display from July 18 until August 15 at the Royal College of Art in London.

Douglas Muir, the curator of philately at the BPMA, said: "This is a unique opportunity to see the Machin design process in its entirety."