Ferdinand Schirnbock (1859-1930)

If there is one engraver synonymous with the period of World War One, it must surely be the Austrian engraver Ferdinand Schirnböck (1859-1930). In an age dominated by stamps printed in letterpress, he visualised in intaglio the final glory years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and through his stamp engravings charted its final downfall on the battlefields. But Schirnböck’s story starts on the other side of the world, back in 1887.

Ferdinand Schirnböck was born in 1859 in a little town in Austria, now known as Hollabrun. After a couple of years at the Vienna Professional School he entered the Vienna Academy at the age of 21. Under the guidance of accomplished teachers such as Jacoby and Sonnenleiter, Schirnböck left the Academy aged 27, ready to take on the world as a professional engraver.

His first position took him all the way to Buenos Aires where he joined the South American Bank Note Company. In the five years he stayed there, from 1887 to 1892, Schirnböck engraved most of the stamps issued in Argentina, consisting of a good number of portrait definitives. He managed to build quite a reputation for himself because of the quality of his work.

But in 1894, Schirnböck returned to his homeland Austria, after a stint of about a year in Portugal where he engraved banknotes. Some two years later, Schirnböck would experience his major breakthrough in Austria, when an engraving subsidised by the Emperor and patron of the art, Franz Josef, became an overnight sensation. Countless private and official commissions followed and, even more importantly, Schirnböck was given a contract with the Government Printing Office.

It would take a couple of more years before Schirnböck’s first engraved stamps would appear; years which were mainly spent engraving banknotes. But in 1906, a pictorial definitive set was issued in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ordered by the Austrian government. Again Schirnböck witnessed a pivotal moment. Hailed as the most beautiful stamps in the world, and still seen as the first proper attempt to issue scenic stamps, the stamps were received with admiration and Schirnböck’s reputation was cemented for good.

Major sets followed, such as the 1908 Austrian set to mark the 60th anniversary of the accession of Emperor Franz Josef. Foreign orders also started flowing in, for sets issued in Bulgaria, Turkey, Russia and even far away countries such as Siam. By now, Schirnböck dominated the stamp catalogues of the years leading up to the war, for many a European country.

But even during the war, Schirnböck’s work would remain synonymous with the last gasps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the stamp issues of the Austro-Hungarian Military Post, bearing portraits of the Emperor Franz Josef, were engraved by Schirnböck. In pure or overprinted state these could be found anywhere in Europe from Italy to Montenegro, from Serbia to Romania.

Although it has never been officially confirmed, it is thought highly likely that Schirnböck also engraved the successor to these stamps, being field post stamp sets bearing the portrait of the emperor’s successor, Charles I. Again, we may find these stamps in all the places where the Austro-Hungarian empire was fighting its final battles before it would finally collapse and disappear from the face of the earth.

But Schirnböck survived the death of ‘his’ empire and lived on to produce many more beautifully engraved stamp sets for Austria. The 1922 Musicians and the 1923 Artists’ Charity Fund sets are prime examples of Schirnböck’s finest moments as an engraver.

Schirnböck would continue to engrave stamps until his death. His final work was a set of definitive stamps for the Vatican City. He engraved a number of vignettes for this set, but would not live to see them issued, as these stamps were only issued in 1933, some three years after Schirnböck had passed away. 

This article was first published in Stamp and Coin Mart of August 2014 and is reproduced with their kind permission.

Ferdinand's Schirnböck's database can be found HERE.