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Stamping the Millennium

Jeremy Black looks at the Royal Mail’s decision to devote all their stamps in 1999 to British history over the last millennium.

Hundreds of millions of stamps will be printed and the images and topics will circulate at home and abroad.  They will be supported by the full panoply of philatelic activity, such as First Day Covers, presentation packs and other activities.

In a major act of artistic patronage, the Royal Mail has commissioned forty-eight of Britain’s leading artists, illustrators, photographers and craftspeople to produce a rich variety of images that reflect British artistic diversity and excellence at the close of the millennium. Powerful images have been created by a number of artists including Sara Fanelli, David Gentleman, Andrezj Klimowski and Sir Eduardo Paolozzi.

The forty-eight stamps, divided into twelve monthly sets, are designed to build up into an account of Britain over the past thousand years, focusing in particular on what has made us the people we are.

Just before the 1997 general election Royal Mail asked me to be the consultant for the project.  Since then I have been continually involved not only in selecting the topics, but also in checking the historical briefs for the individual stamps, and writing the text for the presentation packs.

Any process of choice necessarily involves inclusions and exclusions that can be queried, and no doubt readers will argue that a different selection might have been made.  As a body understandably proud of its public image and concerned to produce a major celebration of the millennium that would not ignite venomous controversy, the Royal Mail desired a stamp programme that was at once sensible and defensible, but also a series designed to advance a positive image of the British past. 

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