During his 55 year career, world-renowned stamp engraver Czeslaw Slania produced more than 1,000 stamp engravings* for many countries, including six stamp designs for Australia. He also engraved banknotes for many countries.
Slania’s 1000th engraved stamp, issued by Sweden in 2000, is of the painting Great Deeds by Swedish Kings by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl. That stamp made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest engraved stamp ever issued.
Engraving: an introduction
With intaglio (or recess) printing, the printed image comprises intricate patterns of lines and dots that are cut into the surface of the printing plate. For intaglio stamps, the process begins with the hand engraving of the stamp-size image (in reverse) into the surface of a softened, steel die.
The engraving is carried out using burins featuring a variety of points. Deep lines are cut for heavy tones of colour; thin or broken lines for intermediate tones; and dots for faint tones. As many as seven lines might be cut within a space of just one millimetre!
Engraving a stamp die is an exacting and lonely task that requires intense concentration. A die could be ruined by a single false cut. Slania Czeslaw generally worked in simple fashion using a burin, hand-held magnifying glass and mirror (to reverse the artwork image). Slania liked to listen to classical music, preferably a Verdi opera. Slania’s sketch pad, burins and steel dies invariably accompanied the engraver when travelling.
Czeslaw Slania visits Australia
Nearly 15 years ago, in August 2001, Czeslaw Slania visited Australia for the launch of the Australia–Sweden joint stamp issue. The stamp theme honours the 18th-century Swedish botanist, Daniel Solander, who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour (1768–71). Czeslaw Slania engraved the two Solander stamps for Australia Post.
During his visit to the Post Master Gallery in Melbourne for the joint issue launch, Slania, seated at a desk, spent several hours signing items for collectors who queued patiently. The whole process looked effortless – the engraver’s steady hand never seemed to hesitate. Occasionally, collectors would submit stamps that Slania had not engraved. Every errant stamp was quickly recognised and his signature was declined.
Slania Czeslaw also engraved four Australian stamps in 1994 – Aviation Feats depicting the achievements of early Australian aviators.
Not all stamp engraving is done by hand. Some parts of the image are etched, such as geometrical patterns and lettering, which are not suitable for hand engraving. For example, the 1994 Aviation Feats stamps were chiefly engraved by hand, but the wavy line panels around the aviators’ year dates were etched by acid biting into the die’s surface to a uniform depth.
An incredible 55 year career
Growing up in Poland, Czeslaw Slania developed his skills making miniature portraits. Expelled from school for forging a lost identification card, his headmaster predicted Slania would either be a great artist or a great forger!
During World War II, Slania used his artistic skills to good effect in the Polish resistance by forging identification documents. After the war, he took a four year course at the Kracow Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1950, Slania joined the Polish State Printing Works, which produced stamps and banknotes. Over the next six years, he engraved 23 Polish stamps. Interestingly, his final stamp was the Javelin Thrower design in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games issue.
On a visit to Stockholm in 1956, Slania resolved to stay and engrave stamps for Sweden. His initial approaches were rebuffed – there was no vacancy for a stamp engraver. For the next three years, Slania did menial jobs, including washing dishes for the Post Office Railway Depot restaurant; an ironic occupation for skillful hands! To maintain his skills, Slania engraved “personal labels” – stamp-like labels featuring famous people that he admired – world leaders, entertainers and boxing champions.
In 1959 Sweden’s chief stamp engraver, Sven Ewart, fell ill and Slania was invited to join the Stamp Printing Works. His first job was to complete two of Ewart’s partly-engraved stamps, which took two weeks working around the clock. From this point onwards, there was no looking back.
Apart from Sweden, Slania engraved stamps for Denmark, Greenland, Faroe Islands and Monaco; these countries representing the bulk of his work. Other countries Slania engraved occasional stamps for include Great Britain, Iceland, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Gibraltar, Jamaica, New Zealand, Poland (after 1993), San Marino, Singapore, China, Tunisia, Aland, United States and Vatican City as well as the United Nations.
Csezlaw Slania received many honours during his lifetime. In 1972, his engraving of stamps marking the 90th birthday of King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden earned Czeslaw Slania a rarely-awarded title, “Engraver to the Royal Court of Sweden”. Another significant honour was the Cross of the Commander of the Order of Poland – the country’s highest civilian award – given to the engraver in 1999.
In 1996, Poland issued a postal stationery card, featuring Slania’s portrait on the stamp, which was timed for release during an exhibition of Slania’s graphic works as well as to celebrate his 75th birthday.
Czeslaw Slania died in 2005, aged 83. A press release from the Swedish Post stated, “A great artist has passed away …” His last engraved stamp was issued that same year by the United Nations Postal Administration, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly.
The master engraver’s favourite intaglio stamp
Csezlaw Slania’s favourite stamp engraving: A 1965 5c Winston Churchill USA stamp. © United States Postal Service.Interestingly, Slania’s favourite intaglio stamp was one that he didn't engrave – a 1965 5c Sir Winston Churchill commemorative issued by the United States Postal Service.
Noting that portraiture was the most difficult aspect of stamp engraving, Slania described the Churchill stamp as a fine example of portrait engraving.
This article was produced at the time of publication and will not be updated.