BIOGRAPHY: Georges Bétemps

Georges Bétemps was born in Paris, France on 19 February 1921. He was a student at the Ecole Estienne, the Parisian School of Arts where so many famous French stamp engravers got their diploma. He also studied at the School of Arts in Bordeaux. In 1941, Bétemps interrupted his studies to become part of the French Resistance.

Georges Bétemps started engraving stamps in 1946. His first issue were a number of values of a new definitive set issued in Cameroun. He engraved the ‘Native Head’ design of the 15f, 20f and 25f values, all from 1946, and the ‘Aeroplane, African and mask’ design which was used for the top value, issued in 1947.

Georges Bétemps’ first French stamp did not appear until 1961. That year, he engraved the 45c+10c value from the Red Cross Fund issue, portraying the caricaturist Honoré Daumier.

Though not contributing to it every year, Bétemps' stamps for the annual Tourism series show how he was adept at engraving land and townscapes. From his first attempt on, the beautiful Carnac Monoliths stamp in the 1965 set, it was clear that this was where his talent shone through especially.

Like a few other fellow engravers, Bétemps sometimes used to colour in his die proofs, which were printed in black, with water colours or liquid ink, to get a better idea of what the eventual stamp would look like. These have been available on the market but are very scarce.

Another feature, which is unique to the work of Georges Bétemps, is the existence of large twin die proofs. These were made for stamps printed with the six colour printing process (TD6), which was introduced in 1962. Three colours were printed directly from the printing plate, for which a negative master die was needed, and three more colours were added in indirect recess, for which a positive master die was needed.  Now, these twin die proofs are quite standard, but Georges persuaded the French authorities to allow him to make special large twin die proofs, which would include the finished stamp with a first day cancel. These do not include the official embossed seal of the French printers. He was allowed to make these, but was forbidden to sell them or even give them away. Georges Bétemps is the only engraver who has been granted this privilege. After his death, Georges' widow did sell some of these special twin die proofs.

In 1964, his design for the annual Europa stamp was chosen and his flower with 22 petals (one for each member state) adorned many a European stamp. However, of the 17 countries adopting this design, only three produced hand-engraved, recess-printed stamps. Two of those, for France and Monaco, were engraved by Bétemps, with the third one, for Switzerland, engraved by Karl Bickel Jr.

One thing which kept eluding him though was to get the opportunity to engrave his own Marianne, something which most, if not all, French engravers aspire to. He did try though, but on both occasions was pipped to the post by other submitted designs. In the mid 1970s, when the French postal authorities wanted to replace the Marianne de Béquet design, Bétemps lost out to Pierre Gandon and his Sabine. In 1989, his design combining two French symbols, Marianne and the Gallic Cock, lost out to Briat’s Marianne.

When in 1973 France introduced the so-called Philatelic Documents, limited edition folders with extra information on stamp issues, Georges Bétemps engraved many illustrations for these. His first one was for the 1974 Europa issue. Most were to accompany stamps he also engraved, but sometimes he engraved illustrations for stamp issues which he was not involved in, such as that for the 1f plus 10c stamp of the Anniversary of Liberation set issued in 1974. The actual stamp was engraved by Michel Monvoisin.

The first time Georges Bétemps won the Grand Prix de l’Art Philatélique was in 1983, for his interpretation of Gustave Doré’s ‘Bluebeard giving keys to his wife’. The philatelic document accompanying the stamp included another of Georges Bétemps’ engravings of Doré’s work; this time a self-portrait thought to date from 1872.

With this stamp, Bétemps proved to be a master in engraving works of art in stamp format. His engraving of Bluebeard is as intricate and magnificent as the original engraving. In 1988, Bétemps would again create a masterpiece, when he engraved Alexandre Debelle's 'Assembly of the three Estates, Vizille' and 'Day of the Tiles, Grenoble', for a stamp issue marking the forthcoming bicentenary of the French Revolution.

When interviewed in 1984 by the magazine 'Le monde des Philatélistes', Bétemps talked about the difficulty of reproducing an art work on a stamp. First of all there is the problem of size. Many art works are large canvases and it is hard to reduce the image to the small format of a postage stamp without losing too many details, he said. Furthermore, there is the problem of colours. Where painters can mix any colour they like on their palette, the engraver has to work with two bits of steel and a maximum of six colours to represent the art work. This is where sometimes using the photogravure printing method may give a more accurate reproduction. There, too, one works with six colours, but the mixing process is more accurate. Blue and yellow give the right shade of green, whereby, if you use the same blue and yellow in the recess-printing process, you're never quite sure whether the result will be the one you aimed for.

Georges Bétemps furthermore said that even though he works with stamps all day long, he is not a collector. The only stamps he would collect would be those he could need as reference material for his own work.

In 1990, Georges Bétemps won the Grand Prix de l’Art Philatélique a second time; this time for his French Polynesia issue, a set of four stamps depicting the Maori World. Georges Bétemps was to add to this initial series two more times, in 1991 and 1992, both times with three more values.

Georges Bétemps passed away on 18 April 1992, while still active engraving. By that time he had been responsible for the design and engravings of more than 1500 stamps.

The French Wikipedia entry for Georges Bétemps mentions that a street was named after him in Vigneux-sur-Seine, a few miles southeast of Paris. This, however, was a different Georges Bétemps, also a member of the resistance though, who was shot by the Germans during World War Two.

Georges Bétemps' database can be found HERE.