An introduction to Machin stamps

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It may just be the most reproduced image in the history of the world. The Machin stamp design, named after sculptor Arnold Machin, is familiar to millions of people. Find out more about the definitive stamp design in this introductory guide.

Surely nobody involved in the introduction of the stamp in 1967 would have predicted that the profile portrait would last for so many years, reflecting the simplicity of the design and the long reign of HM.

The Machin series has been admired since first released and widely collected since that time.


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The Machin design

Arnold Machin’s sculpture of the Queen was used for both British coins (from 1968 to 1984) and stamps, and the design has remained the same for most of its long life; one variation being ‘double head’ definitives, coupling the Machin portrait with that of Queen Victoria for the 150th anniversary of the Penny Black.

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Replacing the Wilding design

Many thought the Wilding stamps, issued at the start of the Queen's reign, were too fussy. 

Soon dramatically simple designs were produced by Andrew Restall’s students, while David Gentleman produced similar essays based on photographs by John Hedgecoe. In the end the Machin design was something of a team effort, not unlike the famous Penny Black itself.

The renowned sculptor Arnold Machin produced a series of bas-reliefs. In turn, these were photographed by staff at Harrison and Sons with different lighting effects and from these photographs a vast range of essays and colour trials were compiled.

The design takes inspiration from the Penny Black with its simplistic regal design. In Machin’s design, the Queen was originally wearing a tiara but he was asked to change this to the diadem.

Two basic designs were used for the gravure low values, the majority of stamps having the value in the bottom left-hand corner, but the 7d, 8d and 9d had the value on the right. 

The two top values of the gravure series were, in fact, printed in two colours, the first British definitives to be bicoloured since the Edwardian series of 1902. The high values, from 2s6d to £1, were not released until 5 March, 1969, and were printed by the intaglio process by Bradbury Wilkinson on rotary sheet-fed machines.

This was the first British definitive series to be printed in its entirety on unwatermarked paper. After the complexity of the Wilding series, this seemed to herald a simplicity of production in keeping with the classic design.

Changes through the years

The Machin stamp design has remained consistent for decades, but there have been changes to the stamps themselves.

What may have seemed like a simple, classic design in 1967 soon became a complicated stamp series for the collector to pursue. Indeed, the design is surely the most complex and challenging stamp in philatelic history.

Is the Machin irreplaceable?

In March 1981 it was suggested that the Machin be replaced with a new design for definitive stamps to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the coronation.

A variety of designs were submitted and considered, some making it to the essay stage, but it soon became apparent that none would surpass the simplicity of the 1967 design.

The Machin continued, but the thorny issue of how to replace such a well known image will, eventually, need to be considered again…

Did you know?

Approximately 320 billion copies of the Machin portrait have been produced.

Such is Machin’s influence, a minor planet is named after him; whether the many Machin stamps produced over the years could cover the entire surface of this far-off globe… is not known.

Useful links

Machin stamps on eBay

The Machin Collectors Club (www.machins.org)

A Timeless Classic: the Evolution of Machin’s Icon, Douglas Muir (The British Postal Museum & Archive, 2007)

The Machin Collectors Club QEII Specialised Definitive Catalogue is the leading reference work for Machins and Wildings: www.suttonstamps.co.uk