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Pretty penny: Charles Heath's classic stamp design of 1840

Perhaps it is true that when we have plastic banknotes in a couple of years' time we shall not really notice the difference, other than that they become less tatty than the paper ones we know and love. I hope so. Our banknotes are one of those rare everyday objects that are actually rather pleasant to look at: they have something of an aesthetic about them, not least because it has always been believed that, whatever other anti-forgery devices banknotes have, a complicated and elaborate design also makes life more difficult for the crooks. In this age of digitisation I doubt that is true, but the idea is appealing, and it allows us to see the Queen in her majesty on our notes, and Britannia in hers, not to mention all sorts of other historical figures.

Some modern design is not to everyone's taste, but a few everyday objects do seem to convey some degree of style. The iPhone, and indeed most of Apple's products, are certainly in that league. The new Routemaster bus in London appears to be the one triumph no one can deny Boris Johnson, with its dark red upholstery and retrogressive rear entrance making it for all the world seem like something built with love and care in the 1950s. Some modern cars, after a grim time from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, now remind one that getting from A to B can give pleasure to the pedestrian as much as to the driver or passenger, as it did when a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud or an MG TD swept past. I can even see the sleek, sharp appeal of a wafer-thin plasma-screen television. But I have an overwhelming sense that a consideration of aesthetics comes rarely into the minds of those who make or commission everyday objects, which is all our loss. After all, even today's reasonably attractive bank notes cannot hold a candle to the magnificent white fiver of old.

Perhaps the most obvious showcase of these horrors is the average high street, where garish and horrid shop-fronts yell at shoppers and passers-by. Of course many of these are part of chains; and many of those that aren't cannot be sure they will be in business for very long, so even if it were in vogue to splash out on a finely wrought handmade shop sign it might prove to be a poor investment. There are many complaints about so-called "street furniture", but few things could be worse than ordinary signposts, which proliferate and are simply ugly. One doesn't have to travel too far into rural Britain to see old black-and-white metal signposts with raised lettering; and many towns still retain original street-signs on Georgian and Victorian terraces that are redolent not just of age, but of an age when trouble was taken to make things beautiful as well as useful. Oddly enough, the age of utilitarianism — the 19th century — was the least utilitarian in this respect, for it saw that items that had a utility also needed to have an aesthetic.

When Rowland Hill invented the postage stamp in 1840 the Post Office ensured that the stamp — the first in the world — also represented the institution in as grand a way as possible. His designer, Charles Heath, used a head of the Queen designed by William Wyon — who also engraved the head on the contemporary coinage — but set it on a white lattice-like design on black to try to ward off forgers, with Maltese crosses in the two upper corners of the stamp and letters of the alphabet in the lower. 

The stamp is the most famous in the world, not just because it was the first adhesive postage stamp but because of the beauty of its design. The black may have been chic,  but it also turned out to be problematical: the red ink used to postmark the stamp was not always easy to see against it, and so the combination was changed to a red stamp with a black cancellation after only a year.

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