The Typographic Hub

Stamp printing

20th November 2011

Stamps are both under-rated and over-looked items of printed ephemera; we lick, stick and drop them in the post box with hardly a second thought for these utilitarian pieces of print.

However, ever since Sir Rowland Hill introduced the first adhesive stamp - the Penny Black - in 1840, stamps have seduced generations of collectors from curious school children lured by the glimpse of far-away places, to grandees of the Royal Philatelic Society who are interested in their appearance and the complexities of their production, printing and serialisation. But stamps are also rather beautiful miniature works of art and they are undoubtedly giant achievements of printing technology. In addition to the familiar range of eight definitive, ‘everyday’ stamps that bear Arnold Machin’s classic portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, Royal Mail produces twelve special issues each year. Special Stamps are issued monthly and commemorate important national events, anniversaries, noteworthy people, great achievements and the British way of life. The special issue stamps employ the talents of exceptional artists, photographers and designers as well as the skills of lucky amateurs whose work is reproduced by specialist printers using innovative techniques, and viewed by an audience of millions. Royal Mail receives hundreds of submissions for special stamps annually and has a designated Stamp Programme Committee that short-lists the candidates. The final twelve are selected by a group of lay people whose choice must be agreed by the Queen. In addition to the stamps themselves, there is a plethora of printed support material. Presentation packs are produced that contain interesting information on each special stamp issue and provide a showcase for mint stamps; there are stamp cards that allow the enthusiast to see the detail and design of the stamps; miniature sheets of selected special stamp issues are also available; 12-page prestige stamp booklets are published containing further information on all stamps and unique combinations of special and definitive stamps; and of course there are the first day covers. Stamp production is big business, and 2005 is a bumper year. January opened with a series of farm animal stamps printed gravure by Joh. Enschedé Security Printers, followed by a set of photographic stamps depicting South West England, again printed gravure by De La Rue Security Printers. Royal Mail’s latest special stamps showcase artist Paula Rego’s suitably gothic illustrations of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Rego’s distinctive lithographs were reproduced litho by Walsall Security Printers Limited. Later in the year the British public will be treated to a range of stamps with diverse themes that include motorcycles, food, classic ITV programmes and of course there will be the customary Christmas stamps, which have been continuously issued for more than 40 years. But this year’s special issues are not simply aesthetically pleasing; they are also technically innovative.

On the 15 March, Royal Mail will issue a particularly novel and inventive series of five stamps that celebrate the centenary of the Magic Circle. The stamps use a variety of ingenious printing techniques that allow each stamp to perform a simple, but effective, illusion. Each stamp according to Royal Mail, has been designed to guarantee you a ‘trick before you lick!’ The 1st class stamp is produced using a process similar to that used on scratch cards: when the printed ‘coin’ on the postage stamp is rubbed with a blunt object it reveals either ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. Fifty percent of the stamps are printed ‘heads’ and 50% ‘tails’- this is the first time such a printing has been used on a British postal stamp. The 40p stamp is an optical illusion: when the stamp is gradually moved towards the eyes a rabbit pops out of a top hat. The 47p uses thermochromic, or heat-resistant inks: when a warm finger rubs the spots they vanish, and when the stamp ‘cools down’ the spots re-appear! The 68p is a ‘playing card’ optical illusion. The £1.12 is again heat sensitive: when the warmth of a hand touches the three fezzes, one will reveal where the missing pyramid is hidden. Professor George Hardie who is head of the MA Narrative Illustration Course at the University of Brighton, and an internationally renowned illustrator has illustrated the stamps, which have been designed by Tathem Pierce. This highly innovative, interactive stamp issue is particularly interesting because of the variety of printing techniques Royal Mail has used to bring the stamps to life.
But this is not the first time Royal Mail has issued interactive stamps.In 2001 the Nobel Prizes set of special stamps created quite a stir when it included a scratch-and-sniff stamp for the first time. All of the six printing processes used for these stamps had been employed separately in the past for the production of stamps, but the Nobel Prizes series was unique as it combined all six in a single issue. The 2nd class stamp used thermochromic inks, which made the colour of the stamps change rapidly when exposed to temperatures above their set level: when the ink warmed for a few seconds the colour disappeared and as the ink cooled the colour returned. The 1st class stamp used the intaglio printing process and the heavy film of ink applied to the paper under great pressure gave the ink a texture that was apparent to the touch. The ‘E’ stamp was embossed. The 40p stamp was scented with micro bubbles held within the ink; scratching damaged the surface of the ink, which burst the bubbles and released an aroma of eucalyptus. This was the first time scented ink had been used on British postage stamps. The 45p stamp utilized micro printing: the text chosen was the popular T.S. Eliot poem, ‘The Ad-dressing of Cats’ which was impossible to read with the naked eye but the text was fully readable when viewed under a magnifier. The 65p stamp used a hologram to give a true 3-dimensional image; again, this was the first time a hologram stamp has been used on a British stamp.
But to return to 2005. On the 22 March Royal Mail will be issuing a great British Castles series of stamps. Carrickfergus, Caernarfon, Edinburgh and Windsor castles were first depicted on Definitive Stamps in 1955. To celebrate their 50th anniversary these stamps are being re-issued. Royal Mail will remain faithful to the original Castles stamps by printing them using the all too infrequently employed intaglio process that gives them a texture like bank notes. The castles will appear as they did half a century ago, framed next to a profile of the young Queen Elizabeth.
In October 2005 it will be 200 years since the Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain off Cape Trafalgar, near Cadiz, Spain. The Battle of Trafalgar was one of the most decisive naval wars in British history: it established Britain’s supremacy at sea and liberated her from the long-standing fear of invasion by Napoleon. On 18 October, to commemorate the victory of the Battle of Trafalgar, Royal Mail is issuing a series of six stamps in which powdered wood from Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, will be incorporated into the stamps. Using an advanced printing techniques, the stamps will use traces of oak timbers on the surface of images that depict HMS Victory and Admiral Nelson both dead an alive: one stamp depicts the barrel of brandy that Nelson’s body was returned to Britain in after he died during the battle. Crown Agents Stamp Bureau consultant Nigel Fordham, who is also a member of the Nelson Society, obtained the powdered wood from HMS Victory when he bought 50kg of Victory’s oak timbers after the ship was refitted in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard. Fordham has a Certificate of Provenance to prove the authenticity of the powder.
Ironically, the work of printing the Trafalgar stamps is going to a French printer, Cartor. The French printer has achieved what the French and Spanish fleets failed to do 200 years ago: capture oak timbers from Nelson’s flagship. However, Cartor is owned by a UK company, Walsall Security Printers, which bought it in 2004 in order to create the International Security Printers Group. Because of the complexities of the thermographic process and the use of gummed stamp paper and the security concerns involved in the work, the Crown Agents Stamp Bureau felt the International Security Printers Group was the most appropriate company to handle the work and as a result we can all now own a little piece of history.
But Royal Mail’s brush with innovative printing technology is not simply confined to the production of special issue stamps. The post office has also seized the potential of digital technology and launched a series of stamps known as Smilers™. These are tailored sheets that allow customers to add a personal touch to their mail by combining proprietary stamps with a photograph of their choice. Available over the Internet customers can upload their image and Royal Mail will combine it with one of 15 different designs and produce 20 First Class Smilers™ for just £14.95. Royal Mail has certainly come a long way since the Penny Black, and Rowland Hill would be astounded to see how his invention had evolved.