BIOGRAPHY: George Gundersen

George Gundersen (1910-1975) would go down in history as the 'devil worshipper'. His 1954 portrait of Queen Elizabeth on a Canadian banknote allegedly incorporated the devil’s face, hidden in the Queen’s hair. Although strenuously denied by the engraver, who claimed he merely based his engraving upon a photograph submitted to him, the design had to be altered to allay the public’s outrage and fears. When later the original photograph, which Gundersen used for his engraving, was analysed, it was found that the photographer, Peter-Dirk Uys, who was known for his dabbling in the occult, may well have manipulated the photograph in such a way that the devil’s head did appear!

George Arthur Gundersen was born in Ottawa, Canada, where he would live for most of his life. He started his training at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and followed that up by frequenting the Art Students League in Woodstock, New York and the Académie Julienne in Paris, France. He also studied gravure and recess-printing at Enschedé in the Netherlands and the Bank of Austria. At the age of 19, he was a cartoonist for the Toronto Star Syndicate.

From a very early age he was involved in stamp design, joining the British American Bank Note Company when 17, as an apprentice engraver and becoming an engraver in 1930. As such he was one of the pioneers of Canadian stamp design at a time when the majority of Canadian stamps were still designed and engraved in the United States. One of Gundersen’s most notable early feats was the design of the Canadian 1934 Cartier stamp.

As a stamp engraver, Gundersen really came into his own during a two year stint, from 1948 to 1950, at the Bureau of Engraving and printing in Washington in the United States, as part of an exchange programme. This would make him the first Canadian to engrave stamps for the United States. Gundersen served his apprenticeship, together with another stamp engraver, Charles Gordon Yorke, under Harry P Dawson. His engraved stamps for the US were issued between 1948 and 1952, and include the very apt “Centenary of Friendship between United States and Canada” issue of 1948, and the beautiful US Supreme Court Building stamp as part of the 1950 “National Capital Sesquicentennial” issue.

From 1953 to his retirement in March 1975, George Gundersen was Art Director of the British American Bank Note Company. Although responsible for many stamp issues, as a designer, throughout this whole period, his work as an engraver of stamps dates mainly from the late 1960s onwards. In 1966, he engraved a label with the portraits of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, marking the centenary of the British American Bank Note Company.

Gundersen’s first engraved stamp for Canada was the 1968 stamp to mark the 300th anniversary of the Voyage of the “Nonsuch”, which depicted the actual vessel. In the early 1970s, Gundersen was responsible for a number of portrait stamps, such as those of the humorist Stephen Leacock, the explorer Henry Kelsey, and the Quebec Cabinet Minister Pierre Laporte. The latter was also designed by Gundersen. The portrait of Queen Elizabeth on the 1973 issue to mark the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was also by his hand. The 1972-1976 series on Canadian Indians included a number of partly recess-printed stamps, again all engraved by Gundersen.

A rather stunning example of the art of engraving was the 1974 UPU issue. The beautiful engraving of Mercury and Winged Horses was originally part of a larger engraving made in 1952, which was meant to be used on banknotes, but eventually never was.

Gundersen is also said to have engraved stamps for Bolivia, Honduras and Iran, but more detailed information is missing.

His work outside stamp engraving consisted of engraving bank notes and designing various corporate logos, such as that for the University of Ottawa and the Bank of British Columbia. In total, George Gundersen had some 1400 engravings to his name. Unfortunately, Gundersen was not to enjoy his retirement for long, for he died within a month after he retired, on 18 April 1975.

Gundersen’s final work as a stamp engraver, two stamps of the Canadian Celebrities set, was issued posthumously, in May 1975. These two stamps depict S.D. Chown and Dr. J Cook, two important church leaders.

You will find George Gundersen's database HERE.

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