First class post

Royal Mail’s millennium stamp programme promises to be worth collecting. Fay Sweet gives it her stamp of approval. Fay Sweet has produced a radio programme, exploring the design process of special stamps; it is presented by Tony Benn who, as Postmaster Ge

Revelling in its role as one of the country’s greatest patrons of art, Royal Mail has really splashed out. In a break from the usual nine sets a year, for 1999 it has commissioned 48 of our best artists and image-makers to come up with stamps to mark a millennium of British achievement. The roll call of talent is impressive – to name just a few, there’s David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Craigie Aitchison, Howard Hodgkin, Peter Blake, Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi, Tessa Traeger and David Gentleman.

The programme is the product of more than 18 months of planning and research. “Back in early 1997 we saw the opportunity to do something different for the millennium,” explains Royal Mail design director Barry Robinson.

“After testing the water with market research the feedback showed that people positively expected us to come up with something special.” The anniversaries theme was put to one side and a plan was devised to celebrate 1000 years of British contribution to world events. The series for 2000 will continue the same idea as 1999, but will look at how Britain sees in the millennium.

Robinson continues: “As you might imagine, there was a wealth of material and to make sense of it we needed a structure.

“The solution was to issue 12 sets of four stamps per month with each devoted to the theme of tales. For example, January’s quartet is devoted to Inventors, February’s to Travellers and we will look at the worlds of work, entertainment, science and so on, until the year ends with the Artists’ Tale.” To provide visual coherence, the stamps all share the same template.

The selection of artists and commissioning has been a massive task. To help with the logistics Royal Mail called in Mike Dempsey of CDT Design. He has designed a clutch of stamps, and will see his latest issued in March in the Patient’s Tale series. There had been hopes that Damien Hirst would provide this series with an image, but his workload got the better of him.

Dempsey picks up the story. “With the tales divided into 48 subject areas, the CDT designers and Royal Mail team brought together images from hundreds of artists, designers and craftspeople and laid them out on our huge boardroom table. There were around three artists for each subject. Not only were we looking for a balance of media but also wanted to find artists with connections to their subject matter.”

For example, the artist Susan Macfarlane, noted for her beautiful and sensitive paintings of hospital patients, was a perfect choice for the stamp depicting nursing care. And the wonderful sewn and embroidered work of Natasha Kerr was ideal for the stamp which depicts equal rights for women as her pieces are reminiscent of the banners made by the Suffragettes.

Dempsey continues: “Plenty of people think that stamps just happen. They have no idea of the care and attention that goes in to their making. It’s been a huge task, but the programme has been a fantastic project to be involved with.”

After a number of selection meetings, and input from Royal Mail’s Stamp Advisory Committee, the final shortlist of artists was drawn up and the commissioning process began.

The programme has involved many artists new to working to the discipline of stamp design. Shrinking large paintings to little more than 5cm square presented a tough challenge to many. Some artists found they needed to simplify images to maximise their impact at stamp size, others saw the balance of colours change dramatically when their work was reduced. Accommodating the regulation Queen’s head also proved tricky. Artist Peter Howson made the headlines with his powerful painting depicting steam power – due out in mid January. The Queen, who approves every stamp design, was reported in the press to have been concerned that her head is positioned just above a chimney and appears to be “going up in smoke”.

Despite its miniature size, each stamp stands as the distillation of a world-altering story. All have been lavished with care and attention. One of the most complex images to achieve will appear in September as the final stamp in the Farmers’ Tale. “The story begins with an image by David Tress on early Norman strip farming,” says Robinson. “This is followed by mechanical farming illustrated by Christopher Wormell and then the introduction of new foods portrayed in a photograph by Tessa Traeger. To complete the series, the photographer Richard Cooke took on the task of illustrating the modern method of satellite-farming huge expanses of land. The stamp shows an aerial photograph of a combine harvester at work in a cornfield. The crop was grown specially for us, it had to be sewn in a particular direction so we could get the lightfall to emphasise the shadows between rows. On the day of the shoot, Richard went up in a helicopter and kept in radio contact with the combine driver to give directions; after every three rows work stopped and the machine had to be cleaned of all its dust. Despite threatening clouds, the shot was eventually completed.”

Appropriately, the year kicks off with the issue of the 99th stamp by David Gentleman. Considered one of Britain’s greatest stamp designers, Gentleman was the first to explore the possibilities of this minuscule artform. His image shows two semicircles, slices of a globe and a clockface, slashed across the centre of the stamp is a slender red line which runs through the Greenwich Meridian marking 12 o’clock. Inspiration was drawn from John Harrison’s chronometers and the title is Timekeeping. In the best traditions of stamp design, it is elegant, arresting and charged with layers of meaning.

When it is issued on 12 January 1999, I’ll be the first in line at my local Post Office to start my millennium memorabilia collection.

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