When a Victorian technocrat, Rowland Hill, dreamt up the idea of the first pre-paid postage stamp in 1840, he could have had little idea of the eclectic phenomenon his Penny Black would spark.
From a stolid lion to mark the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, to the two photographs of the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles issued for their wedding, commemorative stamps have attracted praise and fury throughout their 80-year history.
The Royal Mail produces about a dozen special issues a year after submitting designs to a 10-strong committee and then approaching the Queen, whose image appears on all stamps, for formal approval.
The publication this week of the 30p and 68p stamps to mark the royal wedding on 8 April is not the first time use of a royal image has generated controversy. In 1999, an off-beat attempt to depict Britain's industrial heritage ahead of the Millennium, by showing the Queen's head floating from a smoke stack, backfired.
The monarch was said to have been furious at the image but allowed the stamp to proceed after the Royal Mail admitted it had already printed millions.
Peter Jennings, a stamp expert, said yesterday: "Commemorative issues have been hit and miss for collectors. The designers in recent years have broken too many conventions and rules. The Charles and Camilla pictures are unlikely to find favour because the issues of Diana were so popular."
MAKING HISTORY STICK
*Penny Black (1840) Invented by Rowland Hill as a way of making the world's first postal service more efficient, the Penny Black was in circulation for barely more than a year.
*British Empire Exhibition (1924-25) The first commemorative stamp issue produced by the Royal Mail marked the showcase at Wembley for technological and cultural prowess.
*William Shakespeare (1964) Convention dictated that only members of the Royal Family, dead or alive, could appear on a stamp. The rule was broken for the Bard's 400th birthday.
*Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles (2005) Despite assurances of a low-key wedding, the decision of the Royal Mail to issue two stamps showing the divorcées has again raised the profile of the wedding. Critics said stamps, one in a formal pose, the other more relaxed, would make public acceptance of the marriage more difficult.
*Prince Charles and Diana Spencer engagement (1981) One of the most prized special editions, the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps to mark the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Diana Spencer. The stamps were snapped up by collectors. Like all British stamps, they were exempted from having the name of their originating country on them - an honour given to the UK for inventing the postage stamp.
*Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor (1999) The 19p stamp showed the moustachioed rocker with Queen drummer, Roger Taylor. Experts said it was the first stamp to show a living individual other than a member of the royal family.
*Life of Diana, Princess of Wales (1998) Hailed as the most popular special edition, the set of five 26p stamps broke all sales records for a commemorative issue by selling 190 million copies. The Royal Mail was accused of making excessive profits but denied this, saying all profits had gone to her memorial fund.
*World Cup Winners (1966) In recognition of the triumph of the England team, the Royal Mail issued a special 4d stamp showing two footballers with the title "World Cup Winners". Despite looking identical to a stamp issued without the slogan before the tournament, the special issue caused scuffles at post offices as fans queued to buy it.
*Women of Achievement (1996) A set to celebrate "great 20th century women" caused controversy when it failed to recognise the likes of Marie Stopes, Virginia Woolf or Emmeline Pankhurst.
*Great Inventors (1999) The Millennium issue to mark British industrial invention hit the headlines after it appeared to show the Queen's head silhouetted in a pall of smoke from a factory chimney. The monarch was said to be "fuming".
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