For all the stamp’s eventual elegance and simplicity, the design process was anything but. Machin, born in 1911 into a family of potters, was already a well-respected sculptor by the late 1960s—three of his terracottas resided in the Tate Gallery’s collection, and he had previously been selected to sculpt Queen Elizabeth for the first decimal coins. In 1966, the Stamp Advisory Committee commissioned him to devise another royal portrait. Working from photographs and sketches he had made for the coin, Machin created the initial plaster cast of the queen’s profile. A series of trial stamps bearing this work were printed; officials were less than enthusiastic with the result, calling the head “unrecognizable.”
As months passed, the committee became increasingly concerned. The better part of a year had come and gone, and the artist—inclined to perfectionism, and, according to Muir, a bit difficult to work with—had communicated few details about his ongoing work. To be safe, they commissioned a series of royal portraits from photographer John Hedgecoe as backup.
As it turned out, these photographs were precisely the inspiration Machin needed. After examining the Hedgecoe prints, “he suddenly produced this image that everybody thought was lovely,” Muir said. The sculptor also streamlined the stamp design, eliminating all superfluous lettering to showcase the queen’s profile.