BIOGRAPHY: Ferdinand Schirnbock

Ferdinand Schirnböck is synonymous with the engraved stamps of Austria. In an era dominated by letterpress printing, he visualised the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in intaglio, and went on to produce many of the early issues of its successor republic.

But Schirnböck’s output encompassed 14 other countries too, and indeed his career started on the other side of the world.

Born in Hollabrunn, north of Vienna, on 27 August 1859, Schirnböck trained at the Vienna Academy’s school for engravers, after having been a couple of years at the Vienna Professional School, where F. Laufberger was his teacher. When he graduated at the age of 27, his first full-time job took him all the way to Argentina, where he joined the South American Bank Note Company in Buenos Aires.

In his five years there, from 1887-92, he engraved most of the stamps issued by Argentina, notably an array of definitives portraying historic figures.

Schirnböck started by engraving 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 is uncertainty regarding Schirnböck’s final engravings. Until recently, there were only 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 seemed 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.

However, in Walter Sendlhofer’s book on Schirnböck, published in 2018, a letter is quoted from the General Secretary of the Argentine Post, in which Schirnböck is mentioned and hailed as the artist responsible for this issue. This seems to be quite convincing evidence that the stamps were after all engraved by Schirnböck.

The stamps were only on sale for one day, after which the master die was defaced with vertical lines. However, that didn’t stop the authorities from pulling some more proofs from the die.

Next Schirnböck moved to Portugal, where he spent 1893 engraving banknotes in Lisbon. Only in 1894 did he return to his homeland.

His major breakthrough in Austria came two years later when he was given an important imperial commission, to produce a copper engraving of Franz Defregger’s painting Delivery of Imperialistic Gifts to Andreas Hofer in the Palace at Innsbruck, honouring a national hero of the Tyrol region. This copper engraving was subsidised by the Emperor Franz Joseph, a staunch patron of the arts.

The work was well received, and further commissions followed. Most importantly, Schirnböck was given a contract with the Staatsdruckerei, the government printing office, of which he would become the master engraver.

In his first decade there, he mostly engraved banknotes. But in 1906 he collaborated with the renowned designer Koloman Moser to produce a 16-value stamp issue for Bosnia & Herzegovina, a province of the Ottoman Empire which was under long-term Austrian occupation and would soon be annexed.

The issue set a high standard for what was then still a novelty in stamp design: scenic illustrations. It won worldwide admiration, cementing Schirnböck’s reputation and inaugurating a successful partnership with Moser, the doyen of Vienna’s groundbreaking Secessionist art movement.

It also earned the pair the chance to create Austria’s first commemorative issue: a set of 18 stamps (of which seven were engraved) issued in 1908 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz Josef. Moser and Schirnböck produced a mixture of royal portraits and scenic views which were both imperial and imposing. Some of the values were also made available, with minor tweaks, to the Austrian post offices in the Turkish Empire.

The stamp issue was accompanied by a special Jubilee postcard. Although usually contributed to Schirnböck, Sendlhofer’s book argues that he only engraved the frame, and that both the portrait and the vignettes were engraved by William Unger. However, die proofs exist which were only signed by Moser as the designer and Schirnböck as the engraver. Two versions of the card exist; the regular one with Austrian views in the side panels, and a second one with Prague views.

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 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.

In 1912, three more values would be added to the original 1906 Bosnia & Herzegovina set, with new scenes engraved. That year would also see a new definitive set issued for Bosnia & 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. 

Schirnböck also engraved many issues for other countries, including Montenegro’s 1907 definitives, Siam’s 1912 definitives and Norway’s 1914 commemorative issue marking the centenary of its independence. Also in 1914, Schirnböck engraved a definitive design for Luxembourg, portraying the Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide. Although many Turkish issues during World War I are still unaccounted for, Sendlhofer’s book attributes the 1916 definitive set to Schirnböck, as well as the 1917 War Charity stamp and the 1917 ‘In the trenches’ stamp, which was only issued with an overprinted surcharge.

During World War I, though, it was Schirnböck’s work which dominated the last stamps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He engraved the high-value definitives of 1916 and all the issues of the military field post, bearing portraits of the Emperor Franz Josef and his successor Karl I, some of which were adapted to be used in Romania, Italy, Serbia and Montenegro, though the latter three only as overprinted versions of either general or Romanian stamps, as the empire fought its final battles before disintegrating in 1918.

Schirnböck’s favourite design partner, Moser, died at around the same time, but Schirnböck survived to produce many more beautifully engraved sets for Austria, in its considerably reduced state as a republic.

Forming a new partnership with the designer Rudolf Junk, which proved just as fruitful, he produced what many consider his finest work in the post-war period. This included the 1922 Musicians’ Fund set of seven, portraying Mozart, Beethoven and other classical composers, and the even more stunning 1923 Artists’ Charity Fund set of nine, illustrating Austrian views.

Also in 1923, he would create a beautifully executed pictorial definitive for Luxembourg, showing a scene near Echternach.

Schirnböck became partly responsible, too, for teaching the next generation of stamp engravers, most noticeably 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, 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 1911 and would remain in circulation for a whole decade.

The famous engraver Professor Alfred Cossmann, who had a school training 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.

Schirnböck made his final engraving for Austria in 1930, a portrait of President Wilhelm Miklas for the Anti-Tuberculosis Fund set.

He died later that year, at his home in Perchtoldsdorf, a suburb of Vienna, where he had a studio, on 16 September, while working on a definitive set for Vatican City, which would eventually be issued in 1933. A fellow engraver in Rome, Enrico 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.

Incredibly, Schirnböck had managed to keep working to a high level right up to his death, despite having lost his sight in one eye!

You will find Ferdinand Schirnböck's database HERE.