Special stamps: 50 years of Royal Mail designs

In 1965, then-postmaster general Tony Benn asked designer David Gentleman to create new illustrations that would modernise stamp design. Fifty years on, the Royal Mail has 2,663 special stamps to show as part of its collection, ranging from the commemoration of the 1940 Battle of Britain to celebrating the “life” of fictional character Sherlock Holmes in 1993. To mark the 50th anniversary of their non-Royal-related stamp programme, we ask a selection of experts about their favourite design from each decade.

Michael Johnson, founder, Johnson Banks

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Battle of Britain 3

1965: 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain

This is a really early example of David Gentleman’s skill at designing tiny pieces of gummed paper. The way that the aeroplanes criss-cross and the colours overlap, and the depth of the compositions is world-class. Stamps had never looked like this before.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Broadcasting anniversary

1972: Broadcasting Anniversaries

Another David Gentleman one – I’ve always thought this was a masterful piece of cropping with regards to the image, and such a singular object to feature on a stamp.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail British Greenwich Meridian

1984: Centenary Greenwich Meridian 

Howard Waller’s meridian stamps have a great “powers of ten” feel as we start hovering above the earth’s surface then progressively get closer to Greenwich. They have a great “found” design quality to them – the only unifying factor is the red line.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail British aircraft designers

1997: British Aircraft designers

Bruce Duckworth’s “designers in the clouds” must count as one of the best trompe-l’oeils ever committed to a design this small.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail British Lest we forget

2006: Lest We Forget

On balance I think there are probably too many war commemoration stamps and not enough forward thinking – but this fusion of barbed wire and the stems of poppies has always stood out for me. (Design: Hat-Trick).


2013: Football Heroes

It’s not the footballers, or the illustration that I love – it’s the genius of having 11 stamps in the set that gets me. (Design: True North).

Johnson has designed 46 stamps himself, including the Royal Mail’s Beatles set in 2007.


Philip Parker, head of stamp strategy, The Royal Mail


Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail British Concorde

1969: Concorde

Marking the first flight of Concorde, this elegant David Gentleman design is probably the simplest artwork of all time. Two sheets of coloured film, spray painted, were cut with a scalpel to form the instantly recognisable profile. Over five decades Gentleman has designed more than 100 Special Stamps, his work always distinctive.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Sailing

1975: Sailing

It was purely coincidental that Andrew Restall’s designs overlapped with Rod Stewart’s chart hit of the same name. Nothing as colourful, as “loose” (and perhaps as joyous) had been seen on stamps before. Restall’s major contribution to stamps included his Fellowship in Stamp Design at the RCA (instigated by Tony Benn).

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Flowers

1987: Flowers

Stamps have been a vehicle for leading photographers and Alfred Lammer created what I consider to be some of the most beautiful stamps ever. Using only natural light and shooting flowers in situ, he would wait for hours before the conditions were right for a shot. The stamps were a feature of his newspaper obituaries when he died in 2000.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Darwin's theory

1999: Darwin’s Theory (from September 1999 Scientists’ Tale stamp set)

The Millennium Stamps were Royal Mail’s most ambitious programme, with every issue of 1999 exploring 1000 years of history with 48 leading image-makers contributing. Ray Harris-Ching is a wildlife artist like no other, meticulously painting mostly birds, and is somehow able to give each an individual character. His ingenious interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution placed a Galapagos Finch on the fossil of the first known bird.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail The Beatles

2007: The Beatles

Perhaps not surprisingly, The Beatles stamps of 2007 are Royal Mail’s biggest selling issue of the last decade. It’s also notable for its depiction of living people. Before 2007, identifiable living people other than members of the Royal Family had hardly ever been seen on stamps. Designed by Johnson Banks, the stamp’s irregular shape is created by an image of the band’s iconic album stacked on top of a pile of LPs – I enjoy identifying the hidden albums.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail WWF

2011: WWF

Stamps to mark the conservation group’s 50th anniversary included ten close-cropped images of the faces of endangered species. It’s incredibly hard to select one, but the Amur Leopard is striking and beautiful. Designed by Rose, the simple idea of the creature gazing straight out at you is effective – the fact that there are less than 40 left in the wild is sobering.


Dean Shepherd, editor, Gibbons Stamp Monthly magazine, Stanley Gibbons

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Battle of Britain 4

1965: 25th Anniversary of The Battle of Britain

It’s not only the bold design of this set, particularly those created by David Gentlemen, which I like – it also reminds me of the battle going on behind the scenes as Tony Benn, the then-postmaster general, and David Gentleman campaigned to have the Queen’s head removed from British stamp design. They didn’t succeed!

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Philympia

1970: Philympia 70 Stamp Exhibition

Stamp-on-stamp designs are very popular and this David Gentleman one, issued to commemorate the Philympia stamp exhibition in 1970, is one of the best. It showcases three ground-breaking issues of the Victorian era: the first line-engraved stamp (the famous Penny Black of 1840); the first embossed stamp (the One Shilling Green of 1847) and the first surface printed stamp (the Fourpence Carmine from 1885), to give a wonderful timeline of this pioneering era of stamp design.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Transport and Mail Services

1988: Transport and Mail Services in 1930s

This set issued for the 1988 Europa competition and designed by Mike Dempsey recreates the look of those superb art deco-style posters of the 1930s, as well as the distinctive architecture and engineering masterpieces of the era. The fact that each mode of transport shown on the stamps has a link to the postal service is an added bonus.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Sherlock Holmes

1993: Sherlock Holmes (centenary of the publication of The Final Problem)

I really admire the artwork of Andrew Davidson. His distinctive designs used for this issue, marking the centenary of the death of the Sherlock Holmes character, are excellent and the elongated format of the stamps adds to the appeal. Plus, as each stamp features a hidden letter that spells out a word related to Sherlock Holmes, viewers have to get out their magnifying glasses and do a little bit of detective work of their own.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail first pillar box

2002: 150th Anniversary of the First Pillar Box

Designed by Silk Pearce, not only does this set show the evolution of the pillar box over the years but as the stamps were engraved and recess printed they have a wonderful texture to them that was lost to most stamps of the era. This is also my favourite as the engravings were done by the legendary Czeslaw Slania – arguably the best stamp engraver of all time.

Special Stamps 50th anniversary Royal Mail Accession George V

2010: Centenary of the Accession of King George V

This is by far my favourite stamp of the decade as it celebrates some of the most attractive British stamps ever created – in particular the high value Seahorse design by Bertram Mackennal. This is regarded by many, including myself, as Britain’s most beautiful stamp.

All images are courtesy of the Royal Mail.

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