January 2020

Iconic stamps for every collector

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Stamp collections and the passion for stamp collecting have been passed down from generation to generation and they now form part of our history. But what makes a stamp iconic for the collector? Is it the design, the story behind the stamp or simply the value?

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Penny Black

The 1d Black was on sale between May 1840 and February 1841. It was not only the world’s first postage stamp, it also changed the world and the way we communicate. It caused global change and incentivised many to read and to write as it made sending letters affordable for all.

In 1837, British postal rates were high and complex. To simplify matters, Rowland Hill proposed a uniform 1d rate prepaid with an adhesive stamp to indicate payment of postage. At the time it was normal for the recipient to pay postage on delivery, charged by the sheet and on distance travelled. By contrast, the 1d postage stamps allowed letters of up to half an ounce (14g) to be delivered within the United Kingdom at a flat rate, regardless of distance.

It is interesting that despite all the problems associated with being first in a completely new field, the Penny Black was conceived, designed, engraved, printed and put on sale, all in the space of five months.

The design was deceptively simple, other security devices and its value were added, but no country name. Without a rival, there was no need.



Five Pound Orange

There are some remarkable stamps out there, but there is one special stamp that many GB collectors aspire to have – the £5 Orange.

The first £5 Orange was not a postage stamp at all but was issued to cover the cost of sending lengthy telegrams. When the Post Office issued its first telegraph stamps in 1876, the highest value was 5 shillings, but large telegrams could cost several pounds to send (one is recorded which was over £32!) and the forms were just not large enough to take all the stamps required.

As a result, higher values, including the £5 Orange ‘Telegraphs’ were added to the series in 1877. At the time of issue, this was equivalent to over a month’s wages of a farm labourer.

The telegraph stamp lasted around five years. In October 1881 it was decided that telegraph fees should henceforth be paid using postage stamps and all telegraph stamps were to be withdrawn. As the highest value postage stamp at the time was only £1, a £5 postage stamp was needed for the telegraph service. The printing plate of the £5 Telegraphs was adapted by simply removing the word ‘Telegraphs’ and printing the word ‘Postage’ in the space created in a separate operation, hence the similarity of the stamps.



Seahorse High Values

First issued in July and August 1913, on the cusp of World War 1, the definitive high value “Seahorses” remain one of the most iconic stamps to date. This is primarily due to their high-quality engraving and intricate design, a depiction of Britannia on her chariot behind three horses on a rough sea, accompanied by a striking portrait of King George V.

These elegant stamps were designed by the renowned Australian sculptor, Bertram Mackennal, who at the time strongly recommended that they are printed by the intaglio process to make them even more distinguished. The stamps were issued in four colours and values: brown (2s 6d), red (5s), blue (10s) and green (£1).

During this turbulent era of war and economic turmoil, the stamps were issued as a symbol of patriotism and camaraderie; they depicted Britain as a powerful country ‘and a ruler of the seas’. The longevity of the issue, coupled with the powerful Britannia design, explains why they are so popular with collectors.



Postal Union Congress

Issued in 1929, the £1 PUC stamp was the second commemorative stamp to be released after the British Empire Exhibition stamps of 1924/25. Designed by Harold Nelson, the £1 is regarded as one of the most striking stamps ever to have been issued – it features an intricate design of Saint George and the Dragon accompanied by a portrait of King George V.

The stamps were issued to mark the meeting of the Universal Postal Union in London on 10 May 1929.

The £1 stamp was a late entry after it had been previously planned to issue a set of 1⁄2d, 1d, 11⁄2d and 21⁄2d values. It is thought that one reason for this is that it would have been embarrassing to present a special set of stamps to Congress delegates whose value was a mere 51⁄2d. Another reason was to generate significant income from the philatelic market, rather than normal postal use.

Although circa 68,000 stamps were printed (very low for a GB stamp), it does have a very high survival rate and is not a rare stamp. First day covers bearing the £1 value are, however, extremely rare.

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The Wilding Definitives

The “Wildings” were a series of definitive postage stamps most notable for the superb Dorothy Wilding portrait of Queen Elizabeth II from which they get their name, and were in use from 1952 through to 1968.

The series was produced during a time of great philatelic innovation and postal mechanisation.

They were the first stamps produced with graphite lines on the reverse and the first stamps produced with invisible bands of phosphorescent ink on the face. The purpose of which was to facilitate automatic letter sorting by machine. Taken for granted today but probably the greatest innovation since the invention of the postage stamp itself.

At the outset, 75 designs were considered for a portrait frame of which only five were selected. Symbolic flowers were portrayed, replicating a definitive stamp design of King George VI’s reign. Wilding’s photo shows Queen Elizabeth wearing the same State Diadem made for King George IV and worn by Queen Elizabeth’s great grandmother, Queen Victoria, on the Penny Black.

It was suggested that the Wildings series be replaced as the Wilding portrait was too large for commemorative stamps and that the requirement to have Her Majesty’s portrait always facing into the design imposed a significant restriction on the artist. This transitioned the design into a ‘back to basics’ approach - similar to the very first Penny Black stamp.



Machin Definitives

The Machin series was a definitive stamp series that followed the Wildings.

The Stamp Advisory Committee expressed a desire for a designer to focus on the Queen as a person, as opposed to a symbol of the Monarchy. Arnold Machin was commissioned for this work. Born in Stoke-on-Trent, he was a renowned artist, designer and sculptor, notable for his simple interpretations and designs.

He was one of five artists who were invited to submit designs of The Queen’s head in 1965; the Stamp Advisory Committee was in favour of his approach to the portrait – it was simple, elegant and more defined, and they liked the portrait on a darker background.

The Queen approved the designs in 1966 and in 1967 the first stamps were issued to the public. The design has enjoyed a long life (for a stamp). It has now been in use for 49 years and is still going strong - an iconic symbol of Britain.

Arnold Machin’s design is without question the modern-day equivalent of the Penny Black. It too has become an icon. Both designs originated in work for coins and medals and employed the highest craftsmanship of the day as if they were made to remain untouched by design trends and fashion. The Machin, like the Penny Black, is timeless.



Four Anna

The 1854 4 anna of India is a stamp like no other. With its red octagonal frame (the distinctive shape suggested by the current 6d, 10d and 1s embossed stamps of Great Britain) and blue central head of Queen Victoria, it was the first bicoloured stamp of the British Empire, and of course, it had to be printed at two operations.

The red frames were printed first, the sheets allowed to dry, and then the blue heads were added on the next day. This was a laborious business, especially when it is realised that the original small sheets contained only 12 stamps each, arranged in three rows of four on a grid of wavy lines and rosettes.

Yet such was Thuillier’s energy that when the go-ahead was finally received on 12 October, he managed to get enough printed for them to go on sale three days later. It was not until 1890 that it was discovered that this great haste had resulted in some errors slipping through unnoticed, namely stamps with INVERTED HEAD, of which 28 examples are now known to exist. Not surprisingly, these have an almost legendary status today and are regarded as the greatest of Indian classic rarities, even though Thuillier himself would have been deeply embarrassed by their survival.

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‘Camel Postman’

When General Sir Herbert Kitchener was leading the campaign that would eventually reconquer Sudan from the brutal Mahdist regime, at the battle of Omdurman on 2 September 1898, one might think that providing new postage stamps would not have been a top priority. But that is to underestimate the thoroughness of that great soldier and administrator.

The previous year, with victory still far off, he became aware of a young officer who was a talented and artistic map-maker, named Capt. E.A. Stanton, and on an inspection visit to his base, he sought him out and instructed him to come up with a design for stamps, announcing that he would be back in five days’ time.

Stanton was rather alarmed by this commission, and the days began to tick by.

Then one morning the regimental post arrived, not by the usual riverboat, but by camel, and he had his inspiration. Using a friendly local tribesman as a model, he produced a watercolour sketch of the ‘postman’ riding by, complete with dummy mail bags, against a backdrop of desert and mountains, and so was born one of the most famous of all stamp designs. 

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Five Shillings Penguin

In the 1920s and especially 1930s the British colonies around the globe increasingly moved away from basic functional designs for their postage stamps, and a growing vogue for pictorial stamps developed.

The remote Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic were no exception.

The first permanent British settlement of the Islands had been established, and in 1932 plans were afoot to celebrate the forthcoming Centenary, with a proposed set of commemorative postage stamps high on the list. The committee included the acting postmistress, Miss Maude Carey, and the energetic Colonial Engineer George Roberts, who was also a keen amateur photographer.

Mr Roberts devised a series of pictorial designs, intended to showcase the life and history of the Islands, which in the hands of Bradbury Wilkinson, specialist engravers and printers, became perhaps the most beautiful and immediately recognisable of all the British colonial sets issued in the 1930s. The previously ubiquitous king’s head is now confined to the top £1 value, but in the form of a splendid facing portrait.

Roberts’ masterpiece is surely the 5s value, with its vignette of a King Penguin, perfectly accommodated to the vertical format, and it is rather extraordinary to learn that this was his very first effort, before he came up with ideas for the other values. This noble bird, which stands 3ft tall, is the largest of the five species of penguin native to the Falklands, and the photograph used had been taken by Roberts himself a couple of years before.

This lovely stamp, with its striking black and yellow colour combination, partly no doubt inspired by the bird’s plumage, was an immediate favourite with collectors, and it remains so to this day. 

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Royal Silver Wedding

King George VI had never expected to become King, but acceded to the throne upon the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, in 1936 (the ‘year of the three Kings’). He turned out to be a popular monarch, having been a staunch figurehead during the years of the Second World War, and his Queen Elizabeth was also held in high regard.

Following the success of previous ‘omnibus’ issues, it was natural that another would be forthcoming for the Royal couple’s Silver Wedding. Unlike earlier issues, it was planned that every colony would issue two stamps, a high value (typically £1) and a low value (typically 21⁄2d).

This turned out to be a most unpopular move with stamp collectors. A boycott of the issue was proposed on the grounds that the face value of the stamps was simply unreasonable; beyond the budgets of many collectors and certainly not necessary for postal purposes. The boycott was partially successful and initial sales were nowhere near the levels of previous omnibus issues.

The years have smoothed over the contemporary fuss and the stamps are now much sought after. The colonial type bears a fine double portrait and it is a handsome presence in any collection.

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