Licking to the future

Design - Hugh Aldersey-Williams wouldn't swap the best of the Royal Mail's millennium stamps

Some people are born small, some achieve smallness and others have smallness thrust upon them. So it seems, anyway, to judge by the work of the 48 "image-makers" chosen by the Royal Mail for an ambitious series of stamps to mark the millennium. There are some whose work happens to adapt well to reduced circumstances, others who have been able to make it adapt for this purpose and some who apparently didn't realise or care that there was a particular problem of scale with the project.

The stamps have been appearing in monthly bursts of four throughout the year, each quartet themed as "The Soldiers' Tale", "The Entertainers' Tale" and so on; "The Farmers' Tale" is issued on 7 September. But all 48 designs are gathered in the first exhibition to be held in the space provided for that purpose at the new British Library. It is a judiciously unbookish debut, and the dalek guarding the door to the show advertises that this is not going to be a philatelists' gig, either. Indeed, as I made my way in, a disappointed visitor was remonstrating almost tearfully with the library staff, having toured the show and been disappointed to find no stamps other than these current issues. The exhibition focuses instead on the designers' original artwork and assorted paraphernalia that may or may not have inspired them, but which is the sort of loot that the British Library can easily lay its hands on - a King James Bible, Newton's Principia Mathematica, one of John "Longitude" Harrison's clocks, a replica of Watson and Crick's model of DNA. None of this may count for a stamp collector but it does add interest for the rest of us.

It is soon apparent that no visual craft has the prerogative in adapting to a canvas three centimetres square. Some painters respond superbly: Michael Craig-Martin's brightly coloured tap, representing the right to health, would look great at any size. In David Hockney's equally gaudy landscape, mills never looked less satanic, but all is lost upon reduction. Surprisingly, Howard Hodgkin and Bridget Riley survive the shrinkage better, although the artists seem to have given no special consideration to the size at which their work will be seen. A photorealist canvas by Brendan Neiland of Richard Rogers' Lloyd's Building reflected in another modern facade works well, too.

The illustrator Andrzej Klimowski tells a traveller's tale with a collage of Captain Cook and a mischievous-looking Maori peering over his shoulder. But it looks better at the size of a book cover - the dimensions to which the original was produced and Klimowski's customary scale of operation in his work for Faber. Gary Powell takes a similar approach in a design with a rare personal element. Layered images of keepsakes from his West Indies childhood make a striking stamp, even if the meaning of the components is not apparent to everybody else.

Peter Blake's choice of photographs of Freddie Mercury for one of the more controversial subjects wastes its opportunity. Better to have used the early Queen album cover on display alongside his artwork. Other photography succeeds well. It takes a lot to give interest to peeling a potato. But that's what Tessa Traeger does in her print on the theme of "Growing new foods", a phrase clearly formulated to mean all things to all people - "Farmers' Tales" indeed. The very banality of the subject matter makes you look twice and think. Don McCullin's photograph of a war cemetery on the Somme is characteristic; it becomes truly frightening when multiplied into a row of stamps. Lord Snowdon photographed a dalek, or rather "a full-scale authorised replica" made for the occasion - not one of his more penetrating portraits, but one of the most popular images in the collection.

The cartoonist Peter Brookes got the tricky job of illustrating Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination, which he made when he found that infection with cowpox could protect people against smallpox. Brookes succeeds well with a silhouette of Jenner and a patient in the black and white patterns on the hide of a Friesian cow (although I wonder how common Friesians were in 18th-century Gloucestershire). The joke is immediately apparent in the artist's painting; but for some reason it has an amusingly delayed reaction in the stamp.

Much is made of the research some of the artists undertook. Christopher Corr rented a flat in Sarajevo in order to watch and interview British peacekeeping troops before coming up with his naive, colourful watercolour of their work. But some have clearly done none. Antony Gormley disappoints, with a dreary photograph of a ten-year-old sculpture.

Designers are comparatively under-represented (they get their chance during the normal course of Royal Mail commissions). Alan Kitching harks back to the heyday of political posters (whatever happened to them?) in the 1960s and 1970s with his typographic design celebrating the Magna Carta and emblazoned with the words "Freedom", "Lawful judgment", "Liberty", "Justice" and "Equal rights" - which is either doing the Magna Carta quite a favour or cleverly hijacking the commission to broadcast a more urgent contemporary message.

The weaver Peter Collingwood opts for simplicity, with a simple warp and weft in natural fibre, held like a square spider's web on a background of gold. The sheet of stamps is where the design really scores - a weave of weaves. Providing a second design that works as a sheet is a trick known to old hands such as David Gentleman, one of the Royal Mail's regulars, who created the signature stamp of the series. His design of a globe and a clockface in tangent with a thin red meridian line cutting across them is understated but effective. Repeated on a sheet, the curves form a hypnotic pattern of sinusoidal waves. The single stamp celebrates a moment in time, the sheet its continuity.

"Post Impressions" is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 until 18 January 2000

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?