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Arnold Machin was born in September 1911 and he came under an artistic influence very early on with his father being a freelance modeller working on small models similar to the crested chinaware sold as holiday souvenirs. A pencil quickly came to hand and his earliest known drawing dates back to when he was about five years of age. Machin left school at the age of 14 and used his design portfolio to persuade Minton to take him on as an apprentice. Whilst there he developed his creative skills with pottery design.

Following a move from Minton to a china business in Derby, Arnold Machin enrolled for evening classes at the Derby School of Arts. There he was given the opportunity to produce sculpture models. At his sculpture examination he was called on to model a sculpture in clay, and then cast it in plaster. He was later to put this skill to good use for the British coinage and stamps. From Derby he went study at the Royal College of Art in London.

Machin was a conscientious objector in World War II, and during 1943 served a spell in prison for his beliefs. In 1956 he was elected as a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts. In the same year he had himself chained to a gas lamp in Stoke-on-Trent by his wife as a protest against: ‘The destruction of all of the beautiful things which is going on in this country’.

In the late 1960s, he gave his patronage to the Staffordshire Society for Mentally Handicapped Children. According to the then Chairman of the society Arnold Machin, O.B.E., had great understanding of the problems of retardation. It was his suggestion that led to the production of a card bearing the four recess printed high value Machin definitives, which was signed by him and then sold at a premium for the benefit of society funds.
Generally his work was all that mattered: ‘With reverence for tradition and excellence in whatever era it was created’. This explains why he based his stamp work on the Penny Black which he regarded as the ultimate in postage stamp design.

Coinage inspiration
In 1963 Machin won a competition to model her Majesty the Queen for decimal coinage. In 1965 he was awarded the O.B.E., and in 1966 he was invited by the Post Office to submit ideas for a definitive postage stamp to succeed the Wilding designs on the recommendation of the Council of Industrial Design. Machin recalled in his notes: ‘Apparently I was invited because the Penny Black was an engraving taken from the coinage designed by William Wyon. That is, not a direct portrait. They thought that, like Wyon, I could refer to my coin image of the Queen rather than to the Queen herself. I did endless variations of the portrait and decorative borders since I saw my task as creating both a likeness of The Queen, and an image of monarchy. In all I made 52 preliminaries, but eventually the design was submitted’.

He had not been interested in postage stamps until becoming involved. One of his observations was that it is wrong to think that detail does not matter on such a small image as a postage stamp. Just the reverse, in fact.

To begin with his designs had elaborate frames, but these were simplified as work progressed. Although he produced many preliminary ideas these were pencil on paper, rather than sculptures. Having had his submission accepted he could then begin work on a sculpture which to begin with were based on the designs he had done for the coinage. However, on postage stamps the profile faces left (on coins it faces right).

Machin had a close working relationship with George York, General Manager and subsequently Works Director at Harrisons the printers. There were several casts, initially with the Queen wearing a tiara and later with a diadem. One of these was rejected at an early stage because a photograph of the cast gave the impression that the diadem was falling backwards.

Refining designs
After many attempts in artificial lighting the plaster cast of the Queen’s head was photographed in the Harrison car park at High Wycombe. This took time, because on each occasion when the cast was to be photographed they had to wait until the right conditions came around. Don Langley, Harrison’s Assistant Process Manager, was responsible for the photographs.

In the end a certain amount of retouching was necessary, in particular to get rid of a ‘golf ball’ effect in the cheek. Arnold Machin continued to visit Harrisons periodically, and the making of negatives and bromides went on for quite some time. Essays were produced of the head only and he thought they were marvellous. Machin wrote: ‘Until now it was thought that the stamp would follow a similar as before, incorporating lettering in a frame containing the portrait, but when we looked at the image that was to be used I commented to George York: “It looks so fine and so dignified without a frame or lettering – is it really necessary to include them?” He spoke to the Post Office and to our delight it was agreed that everything could be omitted, except the values. So the stamp design was then concluded. I am convinced that had I not been allowed to work out the design with the manufacturers the final result would have been very different, and far less successful’.

Once the stamps were finally issued Machin became very protective of the design, and was very ready to criticise if any changes were proposed. He preferred a light head with a dark background, as this was more in tune with the Penny Black, and was less pleased with the versions having gradated or light backgrounds.

Objections made clear
In the early 1980s when a possible successor to the Machin head was being considered he objected to the new concepts, especially those that were variants of the established Machin design. It’s understood that letters were sent by him to ‘very high places’ making these objections very strongly. Some of the designs were shown to him at his home and, although he made no adverse comments at the time, soon after the delegation left he made his thoughts strongly known.
Arnold Machin died on March 9, 1999 – ironically on the day that the new Machin head high value set of four was released by Royal Mail – but his work still lives on.