Formed of an elegant red octagonal frame and a blue, central head of Queen Victoria, few stamps can lay claim to such remarkable and eye-catching design as the Four-Annas India 1854. One of the first multi-coloured stamps in the world – and the first bi-coloured stamp of the British Empire – it is a standout stamp in any collection.
Launched in the year of India’s first-ever stamps, the deputy Surveyor-general of the Survey of India, Capt. H.L. Thuillier diligently undertook the taxing task of printing the high quantities of stamps required to service the 200 million population of the entire sub-continent. To do so, Thuillier championed the then little heard of process of lithographic printing: a particular process that required two, rather long-winded, stages.
The mistake would go unnoticed until... dozens of the crooked stamps were in circulation.
First, the paper was imprinted with the red frames. The sheets were then laid out to dry overnight and the next day, the blue heads were added. The process was further extended by the time-consuming process of the printing structures engraved on copper being exchanged to printing stones, via fragile paper patterns. The thinking behind lithographic printing relied upon the rule that oil and water don’t mix – and it was believed such a laborious process would present the best possible outcome for such a delicate design. Few can say it isn’t so.
In spite of Thuillier overseeing the job himself, the elaborate and largely untested process meant that mistakes were made. Notably, twenty-eight examples of the Inverted Head Four-Annas India 1854: a postage stamp prized by collectors for an error occurred during production, showing the Queen’s head ‘upside-down’ due to a printing malfunction. The mistake would go unnoticed until 1890 by which time dozens of the crooked stamps were in circulation. Legendary stamps today, Inverted Head Four-Annas India 1854 are regarded as the greatest of Indian rarities.
Much to the chagrin of the sedulous Thuillier, who would have been profoundly embarrassed by their survival and contemporary status. Only 28 precedents of the stamps remain in existence today and forgeries are regularly detected using long-wave ultraviolet light and other techniques; no doubt as exuberant sounding as the technique of lithographic printing sounded to the inhabitants of India, in 1854.