BIOGRAPHY: Sem Hartz

Samuel Louis (Sem) Hartz (1912-1995), born in the Netherlands, is considered that country's most prolific stamp engraver. He grew up in an artistic family. His father was a portrait painter and because of him the family home was often visited by artists. Not that his father wished Sem to follow in his footsteps and also carve out a career in the arts. On the contrary, father Hartz begged the young boy's teachers (among them the famous Anton Pieck) to given him low marks on his artistic works, to discourage him and instead opt for a more financially secure career.

But Sem was undeterred and went to the State Academy for Fine Arts where he learned to engrave. Being taught the art by another stamp engraver, J.J. Aarts, Hartz soon became acquainted with Enschedé and was employed by the printers in 1936, at the age of 24. His first consignment was to design and engrave the 1.5c and 12.5c values for the 1936 Cultural and Social Relief Fund issue. 

Being employed by Enschedé, Hartz soon came to work on stamp issues for other countries as well. Among those Luxembourg featured quite often, with the 1939 ten stamp “Centenary of Independence” set being a favoured example, but Surinam and Belgian Congo were among the other countries he produced for. And so, at the outbreak of World War Two, Sem Hartz’s portfolio already consisted of nearly forty stamp designs.

The Second World War changed everything. Hartz was Jewish, which meant that when German regulations became stricter and stricter, he eventually had to be fired by Enschedé and go into hiding. However, Enschedé did keep in  touch with him and offered him the job of engraving some values of the 1943 Naval heroes set. Hartz engraved two stamps for the set, the 7.5c portraying Michiel de Ruyter (which in the end was not printed in recess) and the 40c portraying Cornelis Evertsen the Younger, which was printed in  recess. Initially, Enschedé also wanted Hartz to engrave the 17.5c value portraying Joseph van Gent, but by then Hartz had gone deeper into hiding and had disappeared from Enschedé's radar, so someone else had to take over. During the war, these stamps were attributed to another engraver, Kuno Brinks, to protect Hartz, but after the war, Hartz was given his proper dues.

When the war was over, however, Hartz re-emerged as busy as ever, taking up his previous position at Enschedé's and continuing to engrave issue after issue, to the great joy of Enschedé, although they did sometimes despair of Hartz’s knack to always overrun his deadlines.

For the Netherlands some of his best post-war work includes the high values for the definitive sets for Wilhelmina (1946) and all the definitive sets for Queen Juliana, again with the high values of most of these being engraved, recess-printed stamps.

Hartz’s speciality was the engraving of portraits, making the Dutch definitives of his hand still a very popular area to collect. But his aforementioned 1939 centenary issue for Luxembourg and the '20th Anniversary of Reign and Royal Marriage' issue in that same year, also for Luxembourg, are also perfect examples, showing his gift for engraving portraits to the full.

What was extra remarkable is that Hartz was one of the very few engravers who did not need a preliminary drawing to work from, instead engraving the image directly onto a steel plate.

Hartz' final engraved stamp was the 1969 Erasmus stamp, issued in the Netherlands. Rather fittingly, as Erasmus was also the man he portrayed on his first engraved stamps of 1936! The 1969 stamp is still regarded as one of the most beautiful ever issued in the Netherlands.

Sem Hartz was rather opinionated when it came to his art. Although not an architecture engraver as such, he was quick to criticise other engravers’ work as soulless. The 1960s architecture set of West Germany, for example, he thought to be stiff and mechanic, with lines that might just as well have run in any other way. With his own few architecture stamps, the 1938 Echternach Abbey set for Luxembourg being a prime example, he tried to lure people into the building as it were, with the engraving of minute details making the whole design much more artistic and intriguing.

Hartz also was not very fond of stamp design committees and in general wished to work with as vague a remit as possible. Especially the tradition of filling up backgrounds of portrait stamps with cross hatchings was something he abhorred. He much more favoured a style whereby the portrait itself stood out by leaving the background more or less blank. His Dutch Princesses stamps of 1946 and the 1939 Royal Marriage set for Luxembourg show what he could do if left to his own devices.

Sem Hartz not only worked on stamps, but became interested in lettertypes as well. His first lettertype design, “Emergo” appeared in 1949, but it was his “Juliana” lettertype of 1958 which became a well-known and often used lettertype. And as if he didn’t do enough, he also engraved bank notes and taught future stamp designers at in-house training facilities of the Dutch Post. He also had a teaching post in Antwerp, where he taught graphic design.

Hartz retired in 1977, after he found that increasingly his view on stamp design deviated from that of those in charge at the Dutch Post. He did however remain fond of his employer Enschedé and remained a frequent and welcome visitor after his retirement.

You will find Sem Hartz' database HERE.

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