12/04/2018
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King George VI stamps - the Festival of Britain stamps 1951

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The idea of staging the Festival of Britain was put forward during 1947. It would be held in 1951, the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, to illustrate ‘the British contribution to civilisation past, present and future, in the arts, science and technology, and industrial design’.

Pressure was put on the Post Office to issue stamps (a special postmark had already been agreed). Ideas came from three sources.

The Treasury suggested a complete new set of definitives, no doubt thinking of the revenue that would generate, but this was rejected by the Post Office as impractical.  

The Council of Industrial Design thought there should be special stamps, while the Festival Committee recommended a mixture of special stamps and definitives. The latter was agreed by the Post Office, a way of re-designing the four high value definitives. The two special stamps would be photogravure printed; the high values recess printed.

No fewer than twelve artists were invited to submit ideas for the special stamps – one of those was Abram Games who designed the Festival logo featuring Britannia.

Additionally invited were the four main British stamp printers. There were 26 designs received from fifteen artists: at this juncture most were inscribed ‘Great Exhibition’. From these designs, Edmund Dulac’s representing ‘Commerce and Prosperity’ was considered the best.

There were initially three contenders for the second stamp: two by Victor Reinganum and one by George Bellew, all three including the Crystal Palace. However, later Abram Games’ design based on the Festival logo replaced that by Bellew in the running.

Come early 1950 the favoured designs were those by Dulac and Games, with just one by Reinganum left in the running as ‘reserve (and a very poor one at that)’, although why the design went out of favour is not clear. The stamps, 2½d and 4d, were issued on 3 May, 1951.

High values
On the same day new high value definitives were issued. One might question whether a £1 was really needed, given that in 1948 there appeared both a Royal Silver Wedding £1 and a definitive £1 (the first time this value had been issued since the Postal Union Congress of 1929). But the income to the Treasury would have been most welcome.

Again, twelve artists and the stamp printers were invited to submit ideas. From these, fourteen artists submitted a total of 38 ideas. There were familiar themes presented: St George and the Dragon; dolphins, unicorns and lions; London landmarks; coats of arms and floral emblems.

Two depicted ships – from Mary Adshead and George Bellew. When the designs were discussed Mary Adhead’s Victory was put forward, together with two designs by Percy Metcalfe (depicting St George and the Dragon and the Royal coat of arms), and a fourth design showing the Lion and Unicorn from Stanley D. Scott. However, there was some disappointment at the designs on offer, so a design that William H. M. McLaren of Harrison and Sons had submitted for the special stamps depicting London landmarks was re-drawn for recess printing in the high-value format.

In December 1957 it was agreed to use Adshead’s Victory for the 2s 6d, and Metcalfe’s St George and the Dragon and Royal coat of arms for the 10/- and £1 respectively. No decision was taken about the 5/-, so both chosen artists were asked to prepare a new design.

Metcalfe chose a view of Trafalgar Square (a link with Nelson and Victory), but this was not liked. Mary Adshead chose The White Cliffs of Dover.

As we know, this was accepted. She had effectively created Britain’s first pictorial designs.

Images © Royal Mail Group, courtesy of The Postal Museum

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