BIOGRAPHY: Ferdinand Schirnbock

If there is one engraver synonymous with the early engraved stamps of Austria, it will surely be 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. But Schirnböck’s story starts on the other side of the world, back in 1887.

Ferdinand Schirnböck was born in a little town in Austria, now known as Hollabrun, on 27 August 1859. After a couple of years at the Vienna Professional School, where F. Laufberger was his teacher, he entered the school for engravers at 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 (SABNC). 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.

His first stamp engraving was probably the ½c value from the 1888 definitive set, portraying General de Urquiza. Schirnböck went on to engrave all values of the definitive sets issued in 1888 to 1892. He also engraved a good number of stamps which made it to the colour proof stage but were eventually not issued. Of those, the actual portrait was sometimes used but then with another frame for a different value.

Besides the issued stamp portraits, of which many proofs may be found, there are a good number of die essays of unaccepted portraits on the market as well. With these stamps, and with his engravings of banknotes as well, Schirnböck managed to build quite a reputation for himself because of the quality of his work. This probably resulted in him being asked to engrave a series of portraits of national dignitaries.

In 1893, a special engraving made for an SABNC exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, United States, led to Schirnböck receiving a ‘Diploma of Honorable Mention’ in 1895.

There are anecdotal sources crediting the 1892 Argentine set marking the fourth centenary of the discovery of America by Columbus to Schirnböck. However, a competitive display held in the 1990s included a progressive die proof of this engraving which came from the estate of the engraver Nuesch. The philatelist Walter Rose, in his 1968 book La emisión conmemorativa del IVº Centenario del Descubrimiento de América 1892 also mentions Nuesch as the engraver of this issue. It is said that Rose had access to archives and printing proofs. It seems therefore that the more reliable evidence points towards Nuesch having been the engraver. The stamps were only issued in late October 1892, so the fact that Schirnböck left the SABNC and Argentina in early 1892 and Nuesch succeeded him as master engraver at the company would also make Nuesch the more likely candidate.

From Argentina, Schirnböck went to Portugal, where he spent 1893 engraving banknotes in Lisbon. In 1894, Schirnböck returned to his homeland Austria. Some two years later, Schirnböck would experience his major breakthrough in Austria, when he got the chance to engrave De Fregger’s painting ‘Delivery of Imperialistic Gifts to Andreas Hofer’. This copper engraving was subsidised by the Emperor Franz Joseph, a staunch patron of the arts. It became an overnight sensation, and countless private and official commissions followed. Even more importantly, Schirnböck was given a contract with the Government Printing Office.

During his first decade at the government printers he mainly engraved banknotes. But in 1906, Schirnböck was paired up with the designer Koloman Moser to produce a 16-value set of definitives for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which saw the start of a most successful partnership. Moser was regarded the doyen of the Austrian Secessionists, the groundbreaking art scene in Austria at the time.

The stamps set a high standard for what was then still a novelty: scenic illustrations on stamps. They were received amidst worldwide admiration and furthermore, they cemented Schirnböck's reputation as a master engraver. Undoubtedly, it earned him the chance to engrave the next major Austrian issue as well: a set to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Emperor’s accession, to be issued in 1908. Together with Moser, Schirnböck again produced a long set of both portraits and scenic images. The stamp issue was accompanied by a special Jubilee postcard. For this, Schirnböck engraved a three quarter length portrait of the Emperor. It is thought to be among his finest work. Some of the values were also made available, with minor tweaks, to the Austrian post offices in the Turkish Empire.

The stamp set would be reissued in 1910 with extra panels added, this time marking the emperor’s eightieth birthday. The same procedure was followed in Bosnia Herzegovina, where the 1906 set was reissued with extra commemorative panels added to the designs.

In 1912, three more values would be added to the original 1906 Bosnia and Herzegovina set, with new scenes engraved. That year would also see a new definitive set issued for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This set included two different portraits of Franz Joseph. With the kronen values being larger, Schirnböck had to engrave four different dies for this set. A similar set followed in 1916, but this time only two dies were required. Similar dies would be used in 1915 for a set issued for the Austro-Hungarian Military Post.

Schirnböck also engraved many stamp issues for foreign countries, whenever these countries placed orders with the Austrian government printers. In 1907, he engraved the set of definitives (and accompanying Acknowledgment of Receipt stamp) for Montenegro, portraying Prince Nicholas I. In 1912 Schirnböck engraved the elaborate definitives for Thailand (then Still Siam), and in 1914 he engraved a stamp for the Norwegian issue to mark the centenary of their independence. His rendering of Wergeland’s ‘Constitutional Assembly’ is a prime example of Schirnböck’s careful execution and his attention to detail.

Also in 1914, Schirnböck engraved a definitive design for Luxembourg, portraying the Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide. In 1923, Schirnböck did more work for Luxembourg: a beautifully executed pictorial definitive stamp of a nature scene near Echternach. By this time, Schirnböck’s favourite design partner, Koloman Moser, had died (in 1918 to be precise), and Schirnböck had formed another partnership with the designer Rudolf Junk. This new partnership proved just as successful as his first.

Although many Turkish issues during World War I are still unaccounted for, it has been stated that Schirnböck engraved at least the vignettes of the 1916 definitive set.

During his career, Schirnböck taught others the art of stamp engraving as well, most noticeable the Swedish engraver Sven Ewert, from 1906 to 1916. Ewert would, in his turn, go on and dominate the Swedish stamp scene for many decades. Schirnböck's influence in Scandinavian matters remained strong after that, for he also taught the Polish engraver Marian Polak who, in his turn, taught everything he had learnt from Schirnböck to his pupil Czeslaw Slania, the engraver who would dominate the Scandinavian stamp scene (and indeed that of the whole world) as Ewert's successor.

It had been Schirnböck's worldwide reputation as a master engraver which initiated these Swedish links. When a new king, Gustav V had acceded the Swedish throne in 1907, and work on a new definitive set had started, three engravers were asked to submit a die essay of the new design, among which Schirnböck. His work was deemed most suitable, so Schirnböck got commissioned to engrave the actual stamp, which was introduced in 1910 and would remain in circulation for a whole decade.

The famous engraver Professor Alfred Cossmann, who had a school tyraining future Austrian stamp engravers, sometimes sent his pupils to Schirnböck, when he thought their way of working would suit Schirnböck better. Among those were the likes of Rupert Franke and RudolphZenziger, whose names appear in the Austrian catalogues after World War Two.

Much later, Schirnböck would also set the wheels in motion to train another now famous stamp engraver, Bohumil Heinz, but unfortunately, Schirnböck passed away before this could come to fruition.

In 1911, Schirnböck engraved a non-postal label for the International Stamp Exhibition held in Vienna that year. Like many of the stamp issues mentioned before, this label, which was printed in at least ten different colours, was also the result of Schirnböck’s collaboration with his sidekick designer Koloman Moser.  

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. It took a while for him to start engraving again for Austria after the war, though. His first engravings appeared in 1922. He engraved the higher values of the airmail set, portraying Wilhelm Kress. That same year, he engraved what many consider among his best work: the seven values of the Musicians set. In 1923, Schirnböck managed to top his achievements by engraving the even more stunning Artists Charity Fund stamp set. In 1928, Schirnböck engraved a portrait of Dr. Michael Hainisch for a set marking the tenth anniversary of the republic. In 1929 Schirnböck engraved the two highest values of the new Views definitive set.

In 1930, Schirnböck engraved his final set for Austria, a portrait of President Miklais for the anti-tuberculosis fund stamps. These final stamps show how much his technique has changed since his early days. During his time in South America, Schirnböck used forceful dots to accentuate his engravings, later he evolved his talent in such a way that he would almost solely use line engraving.

However, Schirnböck was to engrave one more major set, for the Vatican City. This set has been a subject for debate for a long time. The thing is that Schirnböck died whilst working on this set, at his home in Perchtoldsdorf, a suburb of Vienna, where he had a studio, on 16 September 1930. A fellow engraver in Rome, E. Federici, is therefore also responsible for quite a bit of work on this set. The question is who did what?

There are six designs in this set. The vignettes of two of those, featuring a Wing of the Vatican Palace (10c to 25 c values) and the Vatican Gardens (30c to 80c values) are most certainly by Schirnböck seeing that they include his initials. On the Palace value they may be found just to the left of the circle bearing the denomination and on the Gardens vignette they may be found in the right-hand bottom. Whilst some ascertain that Schirnböck engraved all vignettes, and Federici ‘merely’ the 5c value and all frames, others have stated that the style of engraving of particularly the backgrounds on the all lire values are not much like Schirnböck’s. Nowadays, catalogues therefore state that the 5c and all lire values will have been engraved by Federici.

As for the accompanying express letter stamps, the vignette of those include Schirnböck’s full name, whereas it is thought the frame will have been done by Federici. It is incredible to think that Schirnböck remained an active engraver right up to his death at the age of 71, and still managed to produce such fine engravings as those express letter stamps, especially when taking into account that by then he had lost the sight of one eye!

You will find Ferdinand Schirnböck's database HERE.