14 March 2014
Former Postmaster General Tony Benn helped to change British stamps forever. We look back on an exclusive Stamp & Coin Mart interview with the late MP regarding his revolutionary work on stamps during the 1960s…
Perhaps the greatest influence on British stamp design was the album of experimental designs commissioned by Tony Benn in 1965.
Designs in the David Gentleman Album expanded the choice of subject matter and created a new shape for pictorial stamps. Gentleman also suggested that the Queen’s head might be replaced by the royal coat of arms, and while this was not accepted, the small cameo head of The Queen he created for the album soon became standard.
Tony Benn was appointed Postmaster General in October 1964. He spoke to Stamp & Coin Mart about his role and the stamps of the time.
'I was very keen to expand the Post Office and to develop the arts more,' Benn explains. 'One of the ideas was for local Post Offices to display local artists, which did not work. But the other one concerned stamps. Here is a form of art which is seen all over the world, and I wanted to use them in an imaginative way.'
Tony Benn: 'Here is a form of art which is seen all over the world
I wanted to use them in an imaginative way.'
Benn quickly announced new criteria 'to commemorate appropriate anniversaries and occasions, to reflect Britain’s unique contribution to the arts and world affairs, to extend public patronage of the arts by promoting philately and to raise revenue.'
Benn also invited MPs and the public to submit suggestions to him as quickly as possible. 'I wanted to invite good artists to come up with their suggestions,' Benn says, though he also had a number of ideas of his own, such as including an autograph of the person depicted on the stamp, as seen on the eventual Robert Burns stamps.
The most important suggestion came from David Gentleman, who had already designed a number of British stamps.
'All hell broke loose at the time,' Benn recalls.
'I was bitterly criticised. But it was a design point and nothing else.'
Removing the Queen's head from stamps
Gentleman wrote to Benn in January 1965, arguing that stamp design suffered from the inclusion of the Monarch’s head. 'I had already done designs for stamp issues, three of which had been accepted,'David says. 'I knew what I thought was wrong.'
One needs only look at Gentleman’s initial designs, for National Productivity Year (1962), Lifeboat Conference (1963) and the Shakespeare Festival (1964) to see the inconsistencies with accommodating the Wilding portrait.
'I treated it in different ways,' he explained. 'For Productivity Year I put it in an oval, for Shakespeare I cropped it at the bottom and also for the Lifeboat issue, and it was treated again slightly differently for four stamps submitted and essayed for the Botanical Congress.'
In his letter the confident designer detailed these concerns, all of which, both he and Benn are keen to point out, were from an aesthetic viewpoint rather than anything political.
'All hell broke loose at the time,' Benn recalls. 'Sir Kenneth Clarke nearly did his top and I was bitterly criticised. But it was a design point and nothing else.'
The idea that the Queen’s portrait was 'a competing element' that could be replaced with 'a title, such as UNITED KINGDOM, UK or GREAT BRITAIN' would have seemed extreme to many, but republican Benn embraced them. 'I doubt that any other Post Master General would have been receptive at all,' Gentleman reflects. 'I really thought the suggestions would be rejected out of hand, and was very surprised when they were accepted.'
An energised Benn met with Gentleman, who had been working on designs for a Winston Churchill memorial issue and the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain stamps. For the latter he produced a large number of designs without the Queen’s head but the inscription 'UK Postage'. At that time the idea was rejected, but with Benn now on board the possibility of an alternative became much more likely.
'I then knelt on the floor and one after the other passed up to the Queen the Battle of Britain stamps
bearing the words ‘Great Britain’ and no royal head on them. It was a most hilarious scene…'
Benn soon discussed the use of the Monarch's head with The Queen herself, who was receptive to the ideas.
'I met with the Queen which was unusual,' says Benn, 'you usually get five minutes at the most but I was lucky enough to get three quarters of an hour.'
The scene was famously described in Benn’s diaries: 'The Queen wanted me to leave the new designs with her but I explained the difficulties and she agreed to see them on the spot. This was exactly what I had hoped would happen so I unlocked my bag and spread out on the floor twelve huge design models of the stamps provided by Gentleman and also brought out his album of foreign stamps. I then knelt on the floor and one after the other passed up to the Queen the Battle of Britain stamps bearing the words ‘Great Britain’ and no royal head on them. It was a most hilarious scene because I had my papers all over the place and she was peering at something that had obviously never been shown to her.'
A statement from the Palace read:
'She hopes that you – like [herself] – will keep an open mind as to whether
her effigy should invariably appear on commemorative and pictorial stamps, in accordance with tradition.'
After the meeting Benn wrote to The Queen, stating that he would seek the views of designers. New techniques and treatments could then be submitted to The Queen for consideration. He wanted to announce this by a parliamentary answer in these terms: 'Her Majesty has graciously consented to consider for approval new designs, both traditional and non-traditional, for new definitive, commemorative and pictorial series.'
The Queen agreed to the terms of Benn’s statement. However, there was a gentle, added warning. 'She hopes that you – like [herself] – will keep an open mind as to whether her effigy should invariably appear on commemorative and pictorial stamps, in accordance with tradition.'
The next day, Gentleman agreed to prepare a sample album of stamps, showing what could be done with different treatments of the head, royal ciphers, and crowns.
Full interview with David Gentleman and Tony Benn first published in the July 2009 issue of Stamp & Coin Mart - still available as a digital edition.
With thanks to The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) for images and assistance with this article.