The Machin Design
In 1965 the then Postmaster General, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, obtained the Queen's permission to prepare studies for a new definitive series of stamps. A profile head rather than the three-quarters portrait by Dorothy Wilding, dating from 1952, was to be used. Photographs taken by Lord Snowdon were supplied to selected artists as the basis for their designs. Work was submitted by Reginald Brill, Stuart Devlin, David Gentlemen, Arnold Machin and John Ward for consideration.
Machin based his work on the drawings he had already done of the Queen’s head for the new coinage, on photographs (in reverse) of the coinage plaster cast, and on the Penny Black. Within two months he produced over 60 coloured sketches of frames with versions of his head. Machin’s approach was preferred by the Stamp Advisory Committee (SAC) and he proceeded to produce a plaster cast of the Queen’s head, wearing a tiara, similar to his coin design but facing the opposite way. From this, photographs were taken and essays (printed trial stamps) prepared by the printers, Harrison & Sons, with the head set in various frames as suggested by Machin and with different regional symbols.
Machin was not satisfied with the first essays, produced in April 1966. The cast was rephotographed by John Vickers and further essays prepared. All these were derived from the Snowdon photographs but the desired effect had not been achieved.
At about the same time further work was done by David Gentleman and Andrew Restall. An alternative to the sculpted approach was required by the SAC. John Hedgecoe took a series of photographs of the Queen in June 1966 on which Gentleman worked to provide a photographic alternative.
By this time Machin had simplified his ideas. The coinage head alone (with tiara but without symbols) was essayed with plain background colours and only the value as legend. When these were compared by the SAC with essays from the Hedgecoe photographs which showed a diadem, Machin’s were regarded as a great improvement. The Committee, however, suggested that the tiara be replaced by the diadem (as on the Wilding definitives and the Penny Black). Machin immediately sculpted a new mould and formed a head recognisably similar to that finally used.
Various photographs were taken under different lighting conditions and essays printed on 31 October 1966, again with plain backgrounds.
When shown the essays the Queen expressed a preference for a corsage or clothing around the bust. Machin added this and translated it into a new sculpture that he photographed many times until he was satisfied with the modelling and lighting. The first essays with the final Machin cast were printed in December. Subsequently a large number were produced to establish the colours that should be used on the finished stamps.
The Queen herself chose the colour of the standard inland rate – an olive-brown sepia. Shortly after its introduction, however, this had to be changed because of the dark colour, chosen to imitate that of the Penny Black, was too strong and counteracted the phosphor signal needed for the automatic cancelling machinery.
Arnold Machin's legacy is one of the most enduring and instantly recognisable designs of the 20th Century. It is striking with both simplicity and dignity, a timeless piece of work which, arguably, has been reproduced more times than any other image in history. Harking back to the Penny Black, the design is still in use today, more than 30 years after its introduction.