CHAT: Guillaume Broux - Belgium's Torchbearer

When you look at countries where they still issue hand-engraved, recess-printed stamps, such as France or until recently Sweden, you find that there’s usually a team of engravers, sharing the work load. Not so in Belgium. Even though Belgium is very much rooted in the top five of such countries, it is a single man, Guillaume Broux, who for many years has been responsible for all of Belgium’s output of engraved stamps, with only the odd collaboration with engravers from other countries to lighten his burden. Finding that the man is a bit of an unknown quantity, I figured it was about time he got some well-deserved attention. So I picked up the phone and dialled his number...

AK: Shall we start with some general biographical information, such as date and place of birth, education, etc?

GB: Well, I was born In Tongeren, in eastern Belgium near the Dutch border, on 24 January 1963. I still live in the same area but work full time at Philately & Stamps Printing of the Belgian Post, known as bpost nowadays, which is in Mechelen, some 70 miles from home.

AK: Are you from an artistic family?

GB: Yes, I am. My father was a woodcarver who used to work on the famous classic Liège furniture. He’s still at it, even though he is nearly 80 years old now. I took evening classes as a woodcarver as well, but my main training was as a weapon engraver in the City of Liège. Together with Brescia in Italy and Ferlach in Austria, the city is one of the three main centres in Europe known for their weapon industry and the engraving of those. I was also very good at drawing which is another requisite for entering this profession. I graduated in 1988, and spent the following year as a conscript in the Belgian army.

Soon after, the Belgian Post contacted me asking me whether I might be interested in engraving postage stamps. In those days, the Belgian Post did not have any engravers in their employ; they worked solely with freelance engravers. I took up the challenge and from 1989 spent the next six years working as a freelance engraver for them. My first stamp I ever engraved was the 1989 stamp depicting St Tillo’s Church in Izegem.

On 16 January 1995, I became fully employed by the Belgian Post. That happened because they had just built brand new printing premises on the south side of the city of Mechelen. Until then, they were housed in a small and old building in the city centre. As you find with many other state printers, they usually have one or more engravers in their employ, which has the advantage of them being available all the time during the printing process. So they asked me whether I would like to be fully employed by them, which I accepted.

At that time I was the youngest of the freelance engravers, which may well be why they asked me. My colleague Patricia Vouez worked for the National Bank, so she couldn’t have accepted this offer anyway, and another colleague had a pocket watch business, so was also unavailable.

AK: So you were the only one left?

GB: Yes, from 1995 on I’ve been the only engraver for bpost. That means I have to engrave all subjects, which isn’t always that easy. When more engravers are employed, you’ll find that each one has his or her own specialities, whether it be portraits or animals or whatever. But I have to tackle every subject: portraits, flora, fauna, buildings, and other objects. For example, right now I’m working on stamps depicting African masks, for a set to be issued later this year. So the range of subjects is very varied.

AK: Not all stamps issued in Belgium are engraved. Do you have a say in which issues are chosen for you to engrave?

GB: Every year we receive over 100 requests for stamp issues, varying from a local marching band celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, to e.g. a major city celebrating its millennium. The final selection leaves us with some 20 subjects every year.

Naturally, I have a say in which subjects would be best suited for engraved stamps. Subjects which are perfectly suitable are issues relating to our royal family as it’s such a historic subject. Basically, all things historic are a priority when making this selection. To name a good example: in 2012 we issued a miniature sheet featuring the cartographers Mercator and Hondius. That is a logical choice, after all, these cartographers employed engravers themselves, in the days when printing was still very much associated with hand engraving. It therefore seemed an ideal subject for an engraved issue and the end result was indeed very beautiful.

Subjects which may be less suitable for engraving are those where colours have a real priority. Monochrome subjects are in principle more ideal for engraving. In case of multicoloured subjects, we can use a combination of printing processes, for example the monochrome recess-printing process combined with the four-colour gravure process.

AK: Has Belgium progressed to computerisation in the printing process yet?

GB: The preliminary drawing is still 100% done by hand. The engraving of the master die, too, is done 100% by hand. Nothing is etched, everything is engraved with burins into steel. Until fairly recently, the printing cylinders would have been made with a transfer roller. These rollers were rolled over the master die with lots of pressure so that they would pick up the engraving. The transfer roller would then, again under heavy pressure, be rolled over the printing cylinder, thus transferring the engraving onto the cylinder. This is how it used to be done ever since the first postage stamp was issued in 1840. In 2013, we changed this and now the master die gets scanned, whereupon a computer, using that scan, guides a laser that cuts the engraving into the printing cylinder. My first engravings which were transferred to cylinder that way were those for the 2013 issue marking the centenary of Belgium’s first air mail flight.

AK: Do you engrave privately as well?

GB: Well, I work fulltime here at bpost, and have a rather long commute. On top of that I have a daughter with a career in football, and I need to ferry her around every Saturday, so basically I have no time left. So no, I don’t do any engraving outside my working hours.

AK: Have you ever collected stamps yourself?

GB: Everyone used to collect stamps in my days, it was the national hobby, but I’ve never been a very dedicated collector. I never progressed beyond having a few stamps in a cigar box.

AK: Are there any fellow stamp engravers whose work you admire?

GB: I am an enormous fan of Czeslaw Slania. I admire his work tremendously. I met him several times and even spent a few days with him as his ‘apprentice’, in Stockholm. That’s when I got to know him first. I thought he was a very special man, very introvert, almost impossible to get through to, but for some reason he kind of appealed to me.

I went to see Slania at the behest of bpost. They were working on a collaboration between the Swedish and Belgian state printers and asked me whether I would be interested to go. So I went there for some ten days.

Now Slania was obsessed with engraving to such an extent that he did not do anything else. So he had a secretary, Kristina, who took care of everything else. Halfway through my visit, she contacted me, saying Slania had asked whether I would like to come and visit him at home. He lived somewhere in an apartment on the outskirts of Stockholm. Of course I gladly agreed. Kristina then commented that I must have done something very special, for she had worked for him for twenty years and not once had she been invited to his home!

I would say that Slania was probably the last one of the older generation of classic Master Engravers. It’s not so much his engraving technique which makes him so unique, for that is something I could probably do just as well. No, it’s the art of making the preliminary drawing. The composition of the lines of the drawing, that’s where his geniality shone through. When I visited him, he explained to me why lines run the way they do. Why he used a full line in some places, and a dotted line in others. Where lines had to be cross-hatched and when the little squares within these hatched lines had to be filled in with dots. How he used different lines for where skin was soft and skin was harder. Every line in the drawing was the result of a conscious and reasoned decision.

It’s amazing how you could study his portraits in all their detail, and yet, when given a portrait to engrave yourself, you’d find his talent was unparalleled. And it’s not just me, but no-one came close to the quality he could achieve. He was absolutely the best; the Muhammad Ali of stamp engraving.

Something else I admire hugely, are the classic American dollar banknotes, the portraits they engraved, and the vignettes on the reverse. They’re superbly engraved, in what has become known as the American Banknote style. Those engravers were real artists. They were first and foremost artists in their own right, who took up engraving as well. They are the real Master Engravers.

AK: When you compare those classic engravings with what’s being engraved today, you are able to see a difference, as if the classic issues were more finely engraved.

GB: Well, each engraver has his or her own style, but I think it is fair to say that the engravers of old, and I’m talking early to mid twentieth century here, were true artists, maybe more so than nowadays. Here in Belgium, we generally consider Jean de Bast to have been the best stamp engraver ever. His stamps are like miniature paintings. Not to do my own work down, but I think that he and his contemporaries had the edge on us modern engravers. It’s a development you’ll find in all types of classic art. For a start, that way of work would no longer be viable. The hours and hours of work it took would financially just be unsustainable now. But it seems that those types of artists no longer exist, and that’s something you’ll just have to accept.

AK: Which of your engravings are you most proud of?

GB: I’ve made plenty of good engravings, but I would say that my best work still is the 2009 issue of Belgian World Heritage. It was a miniature sheet of five stamps. To me they were perfect, and what’s more: all five of them were perfect. So often, when you engrave such an issue with several stamps in a sheet, you feel that there’s always one which turned out less well than you’d hoped. In hindsight, there may be one or two details you would have changed; maybe use a full line somewhere, rather than a pointed dot, maybe work a bit more on the nose, or slightly change that neck line. But not with this issue. I was, and am, very happy with how they all turned out.

All five stamps are of a similar high quality, all five subjects were ideal for engraving. They included a Victor Horta town house door in Brussels, the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp, the Spiennes neolithic flint mines, and the Cathedral in Tournai. We chose to depict the interior of the cathedral, because the building itself had already featured several times on stamps. By the way, I got a second prize at the European Grand Prix for that particular stamp, which, in view of the strong competition, especially of the Italian and Scandinavian engravers, I’m very pleased with!

The final stamp depicted the historic centre of Bruges. The problem with that final stamp was that the whole centre of Bruges was declared a world heritage site, but there was no way we could include it all on a single stamp. So someone in the office had the luminous idea of photographing the three churches in the centre and paste these together on a single stamp design. The end result was perfect. So yes, I think this issue is the best I’ve ever done so far.

Another issue which turned out very well, was the 2013 issue marking the centenary of Belgium’s first air mail flight, which I mentioned before. The reason I’m very pleased with this engraving is that I had to work with incredibly bad documentation. The photographs I had were so abominable that I had to reconstruct most parts of the plane myself on paper. So this issue entailed a lot of extra work, but the end result is very beautiful, and I’m very happy with it.

AK: I realised just before I phoned you that today (the interview took place on 12 June 2017) the Eupen miniature sheet is issued, which includes stamps engraved by a number of different engravers.

GB: Yes, we’ve done this before. In 2015 we issued a miniature sheet marking the Battle of Waterloo. Our aim was to show the difference in engraving styles, so there were five different engravers working on this issue: Jiang WeijieWolfgang MauerMartin MörckElsa Catelin and myself. We really hoped for noticeable differences which could be picked up by the general collector. This meant that we did not collaborate at all; each engraver just did his or her own work unaware of what the others were doing.

AK: The miniature sheet also included a stamp engraved by both you and the German engraver Wolfgang Mauer.

GB: That’s right. It was the first time we had an international collaboration between two engravers working on a single Belgian stamp. Mauer and I worked separately on our part of this stamp, me engraving the left-hand part and him the right-hand part. There was not even a need to work on the same steel plate. That’s where the new laser technique came in handy. In the old days, with the transfer roller, it would have been impossible to add the two together on the cylinder from different master dies, because laying down the second half would inevitably flatten the first half laid down, because the two halves had to be too close to each other. Nowadays, with the laser engraving the printing cylinder, this no longer is a problem.

AK: I remember that the letterboxes issue of 2011 also included stamps with more than one engraver’s name included.

GB: In 2009 we started with a series on postal vans. We continued the postal theme in 2010 with a set of stamps depicting other postal transport means, such as trucks and trains. Then, in 2011, we made a set of five stamps depicting letterboxes. But those were different and completely unforeseen circumstances. At the end of 2010 I fell off the roof of my home and broke my right arm, so I had to spend the next four months at home. I had at that time finished some of the letterboxes engravings, but the others were subsequently finished by Martin Mörck.

AK: You have also designed the 1999 King Albert II definitives for Belgium. The various catalogues don’t seem to agree on whether they’ve been recess-printed or not.

GB: Yes, the King Albert II definitives of 1999 were mine. That is the only time a stamp of mine has been issued which was based on my drawing but which hasn’t been engraved. The high values of the set, though, were most certainly engraved and recess-printed. 

AK: There’s also some confusion regarding your work done for the Buzin bird definitives.

GB: Right. I’ve only collaborated once with Buzin on his bird stamps. That was in 2005, when we created a stamp depicting the black stork. It was the annual Stamp Day issue. Buzin painted the stork and I executed the engraving. It resulted in a very beautiful stamp, I think. But I’ve never done any work on Buzin’s bird definitives.

I do remember though, that I once made a copper engraving of a Northern Shoveler based on a Buzin stamp. That was not a detailed engraving for a stamp issue, but a more simple engraving for a souvenir sheetlet that bpost wanted to send to its loyal customers.

AK: Have you made more of those throughout the years?

GB: Yes, I’ve done more of those over the years. They’re usually executed quite quickly, and therefore not of the standard of a proper stamp engraving, but fine enough to serve as a souvenir sheetlet.

Actually, the first one was the very first engraving I made when I became employed by the Belgian Post back in 1995. At the time we still had the postal museum in Brussels, and both there and at our printers here in Mechelen we sold souvenir sheetlets to visitors. Our sheetlet at the printers depicted the WIFAG, an old printing press from just after the First World War, which is still on show at our premises. So when I showed up at work on my first day, I asked my boss: “What do you want me to do?” And he said “Why not make an engraving of the WIFAG press for our souvenir sheetlets?” So that was my very first engraving as an employee. It was printed, by hand, in a very limited edition, but again not to the standards needed for stamp production. For the museum I made a sheetlet with the portrait of the very first curator of the museum, the famous philatelist André de Cock. If I remember well, I think I have made some ten to twenty of such sheetlets.

AK: You have not kept records of those?

GB: No, I didn’t. I do remember a few, but I’ve never recorded them anywhere. They were all either giveaways at open days or sheetlets sold in our shops. So I’m only left with sweet memories when it comes to those engravings.

AK: You’ve also worked for a few countries other than Belgium, haven’t you?

GB: Yes, I have. Some of those were joint issues. I engraved an Embassies issue for Belgium and Poland, in 1998. Another joint issue was the Vesalius issue of 2014, which was also issued in Portugal. The five stamps in that miniature sheet were all based on engravings from Vesalius’ famous books De Humani Corporis Fabrica, depicting among others the blood circulation, the nervous system and the skeleton. There is a copy of those in Brussels, which we were allowed to study and scan, and so I did not make my own drawings for the stamp engravings. But the engraving on the actual stamps is my own work, of course.

In 2003 I worked on a joint issue with Russia, with an engraving depicting bells. However, I only engraved the Belgium stamps. I believe we couldn’t get matters worked out in such a way that one engraver would do both issues, so in the end the Russian stamps were engraved by a Russian engraver.

I have also engraved a good number of stamps for Luxembourg; I think about 25 in all. But that stopped rather abruptly, after the director of the postal service passed away. The new director came in with a completely different strategy, which meant an end of the issue of engraved stamps.

AK: Finally, how would you rate the future of the hand-engraved, recess-printed stamp in Belgium? With Sweden being the latest big beast to throw in the towel, having stopped issuing engraved stamps in 2017, do you think that there is still a future for your work in Belgium?

GB: I wouldn’t know, of course, but at the moment everything is fine. I still have a lot of work. We issue between ten and fifteen engraved stamps each year. That’s an ideal number for me, because on average it takes me roughly four weeks to engrave a single stamp. This has been the situation for quite a few years now, so everything is still going strong.

And on that positive note we concluded our little talk and I left Guillaume Broux working on his African masks...

This article was first published in Gibbons Stamp Monthly of November 2017 and is reproduced her with their kind permission.