World Stamps

Machins retain consistency over 50 years amid continual change

Nov 21, 2022, 8 AM

Great Britain Philately — By Larry Rosenblum  

No one knew on that day in late 1965 when sculptor Arnold Machin was awarded the contract to design new definitive stamps featuring the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II that the resulting image would be reproduced more than 200 billion times and that 50 years later the stamps would remain popular with mailers, collectors, and the queen herself.

The resulting design is simplicity itself, a sculpted portrait of the queen with the denomination tucked in at the lower left. (Three early values had the denomination at lower right, but this was never repeated.)

The various denominations on sale simultaneously generally 15 or more have readily distinguishable colors.

Why has the Machin design endured and thrived for five decades? There are several reasons.

The lack of fussy and superfluous ornamentation, common on British definitives since 1840, meant there was nothing to get tired of over the years. Clean and simple designs endure. Three early British definitives, including the 1840 Penny Black, can be seen below. 

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Compared to a photograph, a sculpted portrait is timeless. Photographs are a relatively recent invention, and we expect them to be reasonably current and realistic. A stamp with a photograph of the queen would seem dated after a decade or two.

Conversely, we more readily accept a sculpted portrait as a permanent representation of someone, perhaps because we are familiar with sculptures as far back as ancient times when there may be only one image of a specific person.

The queen likes the portrait and the stamps as they are. Attempts to update the portrait in the 1980s met with royal disapproval, as did revised designs using the Machin portrait.

Finally, the portrait is beautiful. Machin was a perfectionist who worked tirelessly to achieve the desired image.

His process was to create an original model in clay, make a mold from the model with the portrait in recess, and then make a plaster cast of the mold that would be photographed to create the stamp.

Machin explained that this process allowed him to achieve fine detail by engraving directly into the mold before making the final cast. If the revised mold was not satisfactory, he would simply make another. The cast itself also could be modified if needed.

Machin was concerned that the photograph retained the depth of the sculpture and had the right shadows. Attempts to photograph the cast were made with state-of-the-art cameras on railway tracks and multiple bright lights that could be switched on and off at will.

After many such trials were rejected, the final photograph was taken outside on a foggy autumn morning by a photographer with a black sheet over his head using a wooden Victorian camera.

The first Machins, as these definitives are called, were issued June 5, 1967.

If you compare one of these first Machins to one issued recently, for example the 1967 4-penny (Scott MH6) and the 2016 £1.05 (MH458), the similarities between two stamps that differ by almost 50 years, seen below, are more striking than the differences.

Close examination of the two stamps reveals that the newer stamp has elliptical perforations, a different font, and a more detailed but less nuanced image. Also, the new stamp has the iridescent overprint added for security, although this might not be visible in the illustration.

While retaining their basic design, the Machins have evolved as advancements have been made in printing and new requirements have been imposed to facilitate automated mail handling and improve security against forgery and reuse. This evolution is the subject of the remainder of this series of columns on the Machins.


Machins are known for the wide range of colors that appear almost random when viewed casually. Yet most of the time the colors were carefully thought out.

The colors for the initial pre-decimal series were planned with Machin’s help to ensure that the portrait was presented effectively.

Tests were done to ensure the different colors were recognizable. A few of those early stamps can be seen below.

The queen selected the brown black used for the original 4d stamp (Scott MH6), which would be the most commonly used denomination, as reminiscent of the Penny Black.

Colors for the 14 denominations required for the new decimal set in 1971 were selected with the help of the Cambridge Applied Psychology Unit. Three of the stamps from 1971 are pictured below.

After the British Post Office (BPO) developed a set of 25 colors that would work with the mail-sorting machines in use at the time, groups of letter carriers and housewives reviewed the colors to make sure each was distinguishable from the others.

Inflation in the 1970s required new denominations to be issued frequently, and color selection became haphazard.

In the mid-1980s, graphic designer Jeffery Matthews was brought in to develop a palette of 30 colors. Three stamps from Matthew's palette can be seen below.

His palette excluded the light and graduated backgrounds used previously and concentrated on rich tones that best set off the portrait.

Some of Matthews’ colors were only slight modifications of existing colors, such as dark maroon for the 1p and dark green for the 2p. Other colors were brand new.

The first Machins using Matthews’ colors were introduced in 1988, and his palette remained in use until 2003.

However, several Machins were issued in other colors, notably the light blue introduced in 1989 for the second-class nondenominated Machins, still in use today (Scott MH177 et al.), and the gold color used for first-class Machins during 1997 and from 2002 to 2012 (MH287 et al.). The gold and light blue Machins are pictured below.

In 2013, Royal Mail (the name adopted by the British Post Office in 1981) announced that the Matthews palette would be replaced by the new Jubilee palette, named after the queen’s diamond jubilee (the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne in 1952). 

There has been no indication that a complete palette was designed at the time, though all new colors since then have been considered part of the palette. Three Machins from the Jubilee palette can be seen below. 

Over the years, there have been problems with colors. The 4d brown black (Scott MH6) was too dark to show the date of cancellation, so it was replaced with bright red (MH7) in early 1969. The yellow color used for the 10½p stamp in 1976 (MH72) did not work well with the mail-handling equipment, so it was replaced with steel blue (MH73) in 1978.

A continuing problem for collectors is the name of the colors. Royal Mail and its predecessor the British Post Office have supplied names, but sometimes have used two different names for the same color or the same name for two different colors.

Catalog editors assign their own names. The best advice for collectors is to select a single reference and stick to it, but be aware of other names as well.

The colors from the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue are used in this article.


Machin selected the Perpetua font that was used on the first low-denomination Machins and initially in the decimal era. However, the rapid inflation of the 1970s required ever-higher denominations, and it became obvious that a denomination such as 20p would not fit on the regular-size stamps. Examples of the font adjustments can be seen in the three Machin definitives that are pictured below. 

Matthews designed a narrower, slanted zero that was used when the small 20p (Scott MH111) was issued in 1976, and the 10p (MH70) was changed at the same time.

Simply changing the zero wouldn’t be sufficient for larger denominations that would come later, such as 20½p. Matthews designed a new, narrower font for all of the digits, including an even narrower zero.

Introduced in 1983, it is called the Matthews font, redrawn values, or narrow values. It remains in use today, though there have been exceptions, such as the large font used for the large pricing-in-proportion stamps.

Currency change, nondenominated Machins, and pricing in proportion

When the Machins were introduced in 1967, Great Britain was still using its former currency system that was based on the pound being equal to 20 shillings, with each shilling being worth 12d.

Stamps denominated in pence had the symbol “d,” which was short for “denarius,” a Latin word used by the Romans for a small silver coin.

Denominations expressed in shillings and pence were written with the number of shillings followed by a slash and the number of pence. For example, 2 shillings and 6 pence was written 2/6. Below, left, is an example of a Machin stamp denominated in shillings, written as 10/-. The 50-penny stamp at right was equivalent to 10 shillings.

On Feb. 15, 1971, Great Britain converted to a decimal currency system. The pound remained unchanged but was divided into 100 new pence. The shilling was discontinued.

Three high-denomination Machins were issued in advance in 1970 with denominations of 10p, 20p, and 50p (Scott MH165-MH167) to help postal customers become acquainted with the new system. Lower denominations in decimal currency were issued on Decimalization Day.

In 1989, the first nondenominated Machins were issued. Nondenominated stamps for first- and second-class mail were inscribed “1st” and “2nd,” respectively, and remain valid permanently for the service indicated. Denominated stamps that paid for these services were phased out in 2000.

In Great Britain, nondenominated stamps are known as nonvalue indicators, or NVIs.

A nondenominated Machin with the service indicator “E” was issued in 1999 for the basic letter rate to Europe (Scott MH290). This proved confusing because some people thought it stood for euro, a currency not used in Great Britain. The “E” stamp was discontinued in 2004.

Between 2003 and 2010, five nondenominated Machin airmail stamps (Scott C1-C5) were issued with a design clearly stating their use. They have since been quietly phased out, but you can take a look at one below

In 2006, Royal Mail introduced “pricing in proportion,” postal rates that are determined by both size and weight. A new class of mail called “large letters” fit between regular letters and small packets. Horizontal Machins with the additional word “Large” (Scott MH377 et al.) have been issued for this new class. The “pricing in proportion” Machins are pictured below.

I will write more about the airmail and pricing in proportion stamps in a future column.

When the Machins for large letters were introduced, the standard-size Machins for regular letters also were issued with a matching large service indicator at the upper left (Scott M375 et al.). These proved too confusing because customers didn’t know if the large numeral meant large letter, so they were soon discontinued and the original design restored.