Arnold Machin – The man behind the icon

Today 100 years ago, Arnold Machin was born in Stoke-on-Trent in the Potteries – an area which is now known as “World Capital of Ceramics”. Perhaps it might then come to no-one’s surprise that Machin not only became a sculptor but that this art also influenced his most famous and iconic design: the Machin stamp.

Arnold Machin, OBE (30 September 1911 – 9 March 1999)

Arnold Machin, OBE (30 September 1911 – 9 March 1999)

An apprentice at porcelain manufacturer Minton, Machin went on to attend classes in sculpture at Derby School of Art. He eventually obtained a scholarship at Royal College of Art to study sculpture and completed this course with a silver medal award in 1940. Josiah Wedgwood hired him as a designer in the 1940s and supported him during WW2 when Machin was sentenced to 12 months prison as conscientious objector.

It was after the war when Machin’s career in the arts started off. He gained great recognition for his simple style particularly after he had designed a Queen’s ware bull figure, Taurus, for Wedgwood in 1945, which proved a great success and sold for over 30 years. After creating a terracotta figure for the 1947 Royal Academy summer exhibition he became an RA associate, a full member in 1956 and master of sculpture in 1959.

Machin next to his terracotta figure Spring at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition 1947.

Machin next to his terracotta figure "Spring" at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition 1947.

From coin to icon

Only a few years later, in 1962, he was member of a team of sculptors from the Royal Academy to create a new effigy of The Queen in preparation for the new decimal coinage. Using photographs of Her Majesty by Lord Snowdon, Machin submitted several designs to the Royal Mint Advisory Committee who found them particularly beautiful and very human. Committee member John Betjeman even thought Machin’s portrait of Queen Elisabeth II had “made her look a bit sexy”.

The work he delivered on coins brought him to the attention of Sir Kenneth Clark and the Stamp Advisory Committee (SAC) when they were thinking about new definitives with a more beautiful picture of The Queen. Machin was one of five artists invited to submit ‘renderings’ of The Queen’s head and stamp design at the end of 1965, among them also David Gentleman. Gentleman worked on the 1962 Lord Snowdon photographs, Machin drew a large number of elaborate sketches based on the Penny Black.

Sketch by Arnold Machin based on the Penny Black, January 1966.

Sketch by Arnold Machin based on the Penny Black, January 1966.

The SAC preferred Machin’s approach to the new portrait meaning a light image on a dark background. Building on his background as sculptor, Machin wanted to create a new design from a relief portrait – just like the Penny Black – and started working on a ‘Coinage Head’ plaster cast. The SAC liked Machin’s simple style and eventually chose a plaster cast (the ‘Dressed Head’) which was also preferred by Her Majesty.

Plaster head of HM the Queen made by Arnold Machin for new definitive issue of stamps, third version (POST 118/5373)

Plaster head of HM the Queen made by Arnold Machin for new definitive issue of stamps, third version (POST 118/5373)

The final stamps were issued from 5 June 1967 displaying a design which would remain essentially unchanged for more than forty years – a timeless classic.

Royal Mail Machin centenary miniature sheet (14 September 2011)

Royal Mail Machin centenary miniature sheet (14 September 2011)

– Jana Harnett, Marketing & Development Assistant

Learn more about Arnold Machin and the revolution in British stamp design in the 1960s by viewing our online exhibition Timeless & Classic: Machin’s Icon, and get more insights into Machin’s iconic design with our beautiful book, A Timeless Classic: The Evolution of Machin’s Icon by Douglas N. Muir’s, BPMA’s Curator Philately, with an introduction by David Gentleman.

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