Czeslaw Slania's GB stamp designs

Rate this item
(2 votes)
A photograph of Slania at work A photograph of Slania at work

Master stamp engraver Czeslaw Slania received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Royal Mail on March 19, 2002. Slania’s connection with Royal Mail goes back over 20 years. In 1982 he engraved the portraits of Henry VIII and four of the outstanding personalities in the history of the Royal Navy for the Maritime Heritage series. Portraiture has always been regarded as Slania’s greatest forte, but in this set he also engraved the ships in the background. – if you examine them under a high-powered magnifier you will appreciate the skill and precision involved. These portraits of Blake, Nelson, Fisher and Cunningham were the most expressive likenesses to appear on any British stamps up to that time.

Mailcoach set
Two years later Slania engraved the coaching scenes for the strip of five 16p stamps commemorating the bi-centenary of the mailcoach service (introduced by John Palmer in 1784). On this occasion it seemed appropriate to reproduce old coaching prints, a very popular art medium of the early 19th century. Slania had a set of old prints as his models but his reworking of the images was entirely his own. The period flavour was enhanced by the deliberate retention of the mixed fonts of type that captioned the originals. Each of these coaching scenes is a masterpiece in miniature, with a wealth of architectural detail, a masterly delineation of the restless horses and, the different types of coach for good measure. Slania actually improved on the originals, especially the print showing the Exeter Mail being attacked by a lion (an escapee from a travelling circus, back in 1816).

At the time it seemed the microscopic detail in the coaching stamps could never be surpassed, yet a few years later Slania did just that when he engraved the motifs for the quartet marking the 150th anniversary of the accession of Queen Victoria. This time the designer was faced with the huge problem of trying to convey the extraordinary spread of events, personalities, and achievements of Victoria’s reign.

The solution was to present a montage of images on each stamp. The chief one in each case, was a portrait of Victoria representing different periods in her reign, but three subsidiary motifs appeared alongside. The portrait of Prince Albert on the 22p is much smaller than that of his wife, but examine it under a magnifying glass and you will begin to appreciate the amazing detail that it contains. The same is true of the lively portrait of Disraeli on the 31p, but it is the sensitive rendering of Grace Darling (18p) and the newspaper boy (34p) that shows Slania on top form. These individual details tend to blind us to the fact that he is equally at home with portraiture and genre scenes, landscapes, images of ships and machinery and even the florid lettering on the first edition of Mrs. Beeton’s famous cookery book.

Rowland Hill bi-centenary
The Pioneers of Communication set of four released in September 1995 linked the bi-centenary of the birth of Sir Rowland Hill to the centenary of Guglielmo Marconi’s first successful experiment with wireless telegraphy. For this Slania was required to engrave two portraits of each man at different periods in their lives. Not only did he convey the likenesses of both men but also injected subtle qualities that bespoke a contrast in the psychological profiles early and late in their respective careers. In all four stamps there was a wealth of background detail, and it was particularly interesting to see how well Slania had handled the depiction of the Penny Black on the 25p stamp.

Slania also engraved the Royal Mail set of stamps devoted to British posting boxes – entitled Pillar to Post – released in October 2002, but there are two other GB issues to his credit which might have been overlooked. In March 1999 the Castles high values were superseded by a set of four using the Machin profile of the Queen. Hitherto this design had been printed in photogravure or offset lithography, but now it was rendered in intaglio – a process more appropriate to the prestigious high values of the long-running series. To Slania fell the honour of translating Arnold Machin’s timeless image into line engraving, and it is interesting to compare these stamps with their photogravure and litho cousins.

Enschedé recess-printed the large format Machin 1st class stamps which were confined to the prestige booklet released in February 1999. This booklet was quite a tour de force, as it offered versions of this stamp in the three different processes used for British stamps before the advent of photogravure and offset lithography – embossing, intaglio and letterpress. In the case of the intaglio version, it was Slania who was responsible for the engraving.

First philatelic work
His first work in the philatelic medium was the portrait of Jaroslav Dabrowski on a stamp celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Paris Commune which was issued on March 24, 1951. The battle scene alongside the portrait was engraved by M.R. Polak. In June 1951 Slania designed the double-portrait 45gr stamp in the series honouring Polish scientists. In July 1951 he engraved the splendid portrait of President Beirut for the set of three marking the seventh anniversary of the restored Republic – the vignettes at the sides showing industry and agriculture were engraved by Polak. A remarkable debut year was rounded off in December by the release of the set of three stamps publicising the ‘Mining Six Year Plan’ which Slania both designed and engraved.

In a rare interview we discussed his remarkable career with Czeslaw Slania. We had read somewhere that he had studied at the Albertina in Vienna, but he told us that he had never been a formal student there: ‘I just studied the collections there in order to educate myself and improve my understanding of different techniques of design and engraving in a small compass. I have always been fascinated by miniature works of art, and my professors recognised quite early on that I had a talent for working in such a confined and exacting medium’.
Slania’s teachers: ‘…also felt that I would be ideally suited for stamp engraving and sent me round Europe to study the techniques used in different security printing firms. In my final year as a student I was recruited by the Director of the Government Printing Works in Warsaw, specifically to work as an engraver of banknotes and stamps’.

Over a five year period he engraved (and often designed) some 40 Polish stamps, but a very promising career was cut short by the political upheavals that tore Poland apart in 1956. Czeslaw Slania went into voluntary exile that year. His last Polish stamp was the 60gr of the Melbourne Olympic Games set, released on November 2, 1956. By that time he had settled in Sweden, which has been his home ever since. He has now engraved stamps for over 24 countries over the intervening 47 years (plus work for the United Nations Philatelic Administration). He was commissioned by his native country to engrave the miniature sheet for the Polska ‘93 international philatelic exhibition. The result was a tour de force – a large 50,000 zloty miniature sheet showing in incredible detail Lech’s legendary encounter with the White Eagle after the Battle of Gniezno, the sheet margins being decorated with the arms of the Polish provinces.

Swedish work
In 1959 Slania obtained employment at the Stamp Printing Office in Stockholm and was commissioned to translate the self-portrait of Anders Zorn into a pair of stamps released in February 1960. In four decades, Czeslaw Slania, as Court Engraver to H.M. the King of Sweden, has engraved the dies for some of the most beautiful stamps ever produced in Sweden – especially the very large stamps of relatively recent years.

On March 17, 2000 Sweden marked his 1,000th stamp engraving with a stamp which reproduced in majestic detail David Klöcker Ehrenfeldt’s ceiling fresco entitled ‘Great Deeds of Swedish Kings’. It is also now noted in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest engraved stamp ever!

From May 1962 until October 1988 he engraved numerous stamps for Denmark and, indeed, between 1966 and 1978 he seems to have enjoyed a virtual monopoly, later sharing the work with Arne Kuhlmann. In the same period he also engraved many of the stamps issued by Greenland, from the Frederik IX definitives of 1963 onwards. In fact, all of Greenland’s definitive stamps up to the Queen Margrethe series of 1990-95 came from his burin.

In 1974 Slania was appointed Court Engraver to H.S.H. Prince Rainier III and since then has engraved many fine stamps for Monaco (where he now resides in the winter months). Slania was awarded the Ordre de Saint Charles by Prince Rainier (a keen philatelist). Apart from the charming vignettes in the ‘Bygone Monaco’ series he has been responsible for the vast majority of the stamps portraying the Monegasque Royal family. Although portraiture is undoubtedly his metier, he has demonstrated his versatility in other fields, and from Monaco came his superb large-sized 8fr stamp of 1987 appropriately celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Philatelic Bureau. He also engraved the stamps portraying Princess Grace, released simultaneously by Monaco and the US in March 1993.

Portrait secrets
When asked about the secret of his success in portraits Slania explained: ‘I examine the picture first of all from the consideration of the light. Then, having looked at it from every angle, I work out in my mind how best to convey this impression in the two-dimensional medium of the postage stamp. This entails reducing the elements of the picture essentially to combinations of lines and dots’.

As well as postage stamps Slania has produced various sets of labels or stamp essays. He engraved a series of 23 ‘stamps’ portraying famous boxers, from John L. Sullivan to Muhammad Ali (boxing has been a passion all his life). He is also interested in film stars and decided to engrave a portrait of a movie actress each year. Among his essays is a self-portrait which he executed to mark his 60th birthday, and another portraying his mother Jozefa Slania, marking her 95th birthday in March 1992. Other essays include a portrait of John F. Kennedy and, most intriguing of all, an essay for a Polish 90gr stamp in the heroic genre which he designed and engraved in 1950 as part of his diploma examination.

We asked Czeslaw Slania to select his own favourite stamp designs. They include the panoramic view of Ksiaz Castle which he engraved for Poland in 1999; the 800 lire stamp of the Vatican in 2000 portraying fellow-countryman, Pope John Paul II; portraits of Jenny Lind (Sweden) and Grace Kelly (Monaco); the Pierrot writing (Monaco); his engraving of the old fiddler by Anders Zorn (Sweden); and the rendering of the silver coffee jug (Sweden).

Although now 81 Slania has no plans to retire. He says that he will continue to engrave stamps as long as he finds this exacting medium a challenge, otherwise he will stop. For the record, he has engraved over 1,050 stamps so far, but others are in the pipeline.