Stamps: Why the Portrait?

As an Art Historian (now Philatelic Assistant) I have always been fascinated by the portrait and a stamp in itself is a miniature piece of art. To understand why the Queen’s head appears as it does on GB stamps we need to first understand the significance of the portrait historically.

Some of the earliest profile portraits were produced by the Romans for their coins and medals.  Images of the Emperors illustrated their power and importance and thus the profile became synonymous with these characteristics. It was also a way of distributing the face of their leader, who many would never have seen.

Roman Coin

Roman Coin

We can see the influence of these artefacts in the work of Renaissance artists who tried to recreate this sense of power in their portraits of the wealthy. This is evident in the portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife by Piero della Francesca who are both depicted in profile facing one another. Yet this composition had to be used as the Duke had previously lost his right eye in a tournament. You can also see the significance of the medal in Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo De Medici’ c.1474-75.

Piero della Francesca 'Duke of Urbibo' c1467-1470

Piero della Francesca ‘Duke of Urbino’ c.1467-1470

Sandro Botticelli 'Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder' c1474-75

Sandro Botticelli ‘Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder’ c.1474-75

However the initial portrait of Queen Elizabeth II used for postage was not in fact a profile. Instead it was a three quarter view of Her Majesty photographed by Dorothy Wilding in 1952. Though adequate as a Definitive stamp –  the Wilding design was found to be overly challenging for many stamp designers as it took up to one third of the stamp’s area and subsequently compromised the design of the stamp.

Wilding High Value Definitives 1955

Wilding High Value Definitives 1955

As a solution to this problem Tony Benn (Post Master General 1964-66) along with designer David Gentleman introduced the idea of removing the Queen’s head altogether. Initial ideas were produced, however in 1965 the Queen decided she wished to remain on the stamp. This led to the small profile silhouette on commemorative stamps being used instead, reminiscent of those produced in the 18th century of the English high society.

1965 Churchill Commemorative

Churchill Commemorative without the Queen’s Head 1965

A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century

A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century

To produce a profile portrait of the Queen, The Royal Mail approached the British sculptor Arnold Machin. He took inspiration from the simplicity of the Penny Black portrait, which was based on a medal of Queen Victoria by William Wyon. This again acknowledges the historical importance of the profile.

Arnold Machin Plaster Cast

Arnold Machin Plaster Cast

William Wyon Medal

William Wyon Medal

The image of the Queen we see today is not only practical for producing stamps but also evokes the idea of power and importance, circulating her image to the nation. The significance of the portrait on a stamp is not merely a representation of the person but as a symbol of their significance. Commemorative stamps elevate the importance of an individual by allowing them to feature prominently on the stamp, though the Queen still remains dominant as the accompanying silhouette.

Winston Churchill 1st (October 14 2014)

Winston Churchill 1st NVI (October 14 2014)

Next time you see a photograph of yourself have a think what you would look like on a postage stamp?

– Georgina Tomlinson Philatelic Assistant.

2 responses to “Stamps: Why the Portrait?

  1. Very interesting article some facts of which I have been able to use in talks I give to ‘groups’ about my own work in used postage stamps see my site – thepostpopartman.co.uk

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