The Machin Series
Instantly recognisable and reproduced more times than almost any other image in history, the Machin head celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Designed by Arnold Machin, the iconic image of the Queen has graced Royal Mail’s definitive stamps since 5 June 1967 when it replaced the Wilding series. The image has never been updated and has survived the many changes and innovations in the printing of British stamps, not to mention enormous transformations in society and aesthetic taste.
Dissatisfaction with the Wilding
A photograph of the Queen by Dorothy Wilding had adorned definitive stamps since the accession of Elizabeth II in 1952. However, by the 1960s, there was growing dissatisfaction with the design. Many felt that the image did not properly represent the monarchy. There were even attempts by Tony Benn, who was Postmaster General, to replace the Queen’s head with “Great Britain” or “UK”. The UK was unique in being the only country to issue stamps which did not feature the country’s name in the design.
In 1965 the Stamp Advisory Committee (SAC) informed the Postmaster General that a new image would be chosen from submissions by artists. These would be profiles or engraved images of the Queen based on a photograph. Several artists were invited to submit their work but ultimately the SAC commissioned Arnold Machin to design the new stamps. His work was clearly admired by the establishment as he had just finished sculpting an effigy which was featured on the new UK coinage.
The Machin Head
To evolve his design, Machin originally worked from photographs by Anthony Buckley and subsequently images by Lord Snowdon, the Queen’s brother-in-law. Machin was asked to sculpt a bas relief which could be reworked as required by the SAC. The first design was later simplified by Machin to feature only an effigy of the Queen wearing a tiara together with four regional flower emblems. But ultimately, even the flowers were removed from the design. Machin was then provided with new photographs to work from which had been taken by John Hedgecoe and chosen by the Queen herself.
In 1966 Machin replaced the tiara that the Queen was wearing in his effigy with the George IV State Diadem at the request of the SAC. This was the diadem which had appeared on the Penny Black. The Queen asked that a corsage also be included at the bottom of her neck. Final adjustments were made both to the effigy and the lighting used to photograph it and the new stamps were then unveiled 5 June 1967.
Machin had proposed that the effigy should appear on single-coloured backgrounds. However, in the first few years of the series, some of the stamps featured bi-coloured and graduated backgrounds. The Machin Head is a striking yet simple image from which a huge number of variations have been produced over the last 50 years.
The original colour palate featured 14 variations but a rainbow of colours has been showcased since and the stamps have been issued in numerous denominations both before and after decimalisation. By 1989, postal rates were changing so rapidly that the decision was taken to remove numeric values from the standard first and second class stamps in favour of the non-value indicators “1st” and “2nd”.
In 1993 there were more changes to the stamps as the first self-adhesive versions were introduced as were elliptical perforations to enhance security. “Iriodin” ink was then utilised in the printing process to give the stamps a shinier appearance and to ensure that they were more difficult to forge.
In 2009 further security features were added to prevent the re-use of uncancelled stamps as this practice had become a serious problem. The new innovations included the removal of the water-soluble layer between the stamp and the adhesive, making it more difficult to lift stamps from items of mail. The evolution of the Machin series has reflected both economic and social change!
There have been more than 1000 variations of the Machin stamps. The highest value examples have been the various £5 stamps which have been issued. These have included the royal blue and pale pink incarnations issued February 1977, a £5 brown stamp released March 1999 and a £5 grey-blue version issued July 2009. You will also recall the £5 Sapphire Blue stamp which was issued 5 February 2017 to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Queens’ accession to the throne. Many stamp collectors focus on the Machin series and there is a Machin Collectors Club if you are a collector yourself or wish to get involved.
Since the Machin series first appeared, replacements to the design have been proposed on three occasions. But either the Queen or the SAC have rejected all of the new designs including a 1983 effigy by Raphael Maklouf which had been chosen to feature on new coinage. There are certain things in life which quite simply become irreplaceable. The Machin design has proved to be one of them!
So, who was Arnold Machin?
Born in Stoke-on-trent in 1911, Machin began work at the age of 14 at Minton Pottery where he was an apprentice china painter. During the Depression, he attended Stoke-on-Trent Art School where he learnt to sculpt. He then moved to Derby and worked at Royal Crown Derby before being gaining a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London.
In 1940 Machin’s terracotta Mother and Child was accepted for the Academy’s famed Summer Exhibition and he also began an association with Josiah Wedgewood & Sons for whom he created modals for reproduction in the company’s Queen’s Ware range. This was a cream-coloured earthenware considered to be amongst the most significant of the 20th century.
In addition to sculpting the effigy for the definitive stamps, Machin was also commissioned to design the commemorative coins for the Royal Silver Wedding and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. He continued to work with ceramics on a freelance basis, undertaking commissions from both Wedgewood and Royal Worcester.
Arnold Machin was a man of principle. He once chained himself to a Victorian lamp post outside his home in protest at its proposed removal in favour of a modern concrete design. His protest was unsuccessful and the lamp post was ultimately removed but was presented to the artist who then featured in it his garden!
Machin died in March 1999 at the age of 88. He achieved many great things during his life but he will always be remembered for his stamp design which has now been reproduced over 200 billion times!
The Plaster Casts
Arnold Machin created only a handful of plaster casts when sculpting the effigy which was to distinguish the Machin series of stamps. In 2008, one of these was discovered in a cupboard of Machin’s former studio at the family home in Staffordshire.
The cast was put up for auction and created great excitement amongst stamp collectors. It had been predicted to sell for £10,000 but eventually achieved a price in excess of £18,000. The cast was bought by none other than Royal Mail and now resides at the National Postal Museum in London. A further cast was auctioned in 2009. The piece sold for £21,000 and is being held by the Royal Philatelic Society.
The Queen’s Head Project
The Machin series has demonstrated that a simple design concept can yield almost infinite possibilities. The image of the Queen’s head has not changed for 50 years and yet the stamps have been issued in a vast array of colours, sizes and denominations.
To honour the brilliance of the Machin series and its enduring appeal, Positively Postal conceived the Queen’s Head Project. This is a series of mailart offering unique renditions of the Queen’s head. I have created a new image every day for an entire year. The project will be completed by the publishing of the 365th piece, 5 June 2017 to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the iconic definitive stamp. You can view all of the Positively Postal Queen’s Head Project mailart at http://www.mailart365.com/author/positivelypostal/ I hope that you enjoy my diverse takes on the Queen’s head!
The 50th Anniversary Issue
To celebrate the Machin series’ 50th Anniversary, Royal Mail is issuing two minisheets. The first explores the design process of the stamps, the second looks at the evolution of the design over the last 50 years. The latter is notable for featuring a new £1 stamp which is printed using gold foil and so is exceptionally shiny. It is based on the high value range of 1969 and certainly draws the eye. Both minisheets are must have additions to your collection and remind us all of the brilliance of this elegant, memorable and iconic design.