BIOGRAPHY: Karl Bickel Junior - Like Father, Like Son

EARLY YEARS

The year is 1927. Karl Bickel Senior has been working on his peace monument Paxmal for a few years, he has recently married Berta Albrecht and on 17 July their only child, Karl Bickel Junior, is born. From the very start, the wee boy features in his father’s art. Though not engraved until 1931, we find the young child lying in his cradle; an engraving which would later be used for some more uncommon promotional material of the 1943 Pro Juventute set. Another engraving captures the boy as a one-year-old, and even one of the mosaics in the Paxmal portrays Karl Jr.

Karl Jr grew up in those Swiss mountains near Walenstadtberg spending most of his time on his own, the long daily trek to the village school being the ideal fertile ground for his dreams and fantasies. These qualities would later translate themselves in his paintings as a magic realism. To hone his latent artistic tendencies, Karl Jr started taking classes at the Zürich School of Applied Arts in 1945. He would have loved to have started straightaway in the Graphic Department, but had to give way to the more mature, more artistically developed students. While at school, he did get the opportunity to go on a study trip to Norway, accompanying a number of architects. This inspired him to want to become an architect too, but a bad accident left him with a damaged back, which put paid to these plans.

Back recuperating in his parental home in the mountains, his father suggested he take an apprenticeship with him, so he could learn the art of copper and steel engraving. Karl Jr took his father up on this and so took his first step towards his career as a stamp engraver. Having a father who was a highly appreciated member of the Swiss PTT’s elite team of engravers made it easy for Karl Jr to become involved with them as well. In 1947, Karl Jr was allowed to make his first trial engraving for the postal authorities.  

FIRST ISSUES

The first issued stamps Karl Bickel Jr engraved were not postage stamps but savings stamps for the AHV (Alters- und Hinterlassenenversicherung), a benefit system for the elderly and bereaved, comparable to our National Insurance. The AHV was inaugurated in 1948 and a savings stamp system was instigated to pay for it. The various stamp designs, issued in 1948, were engraved by Karl. A second set issued in 1952 was also engraved by him.

Karl’s first postage stamp was issued in 1950. It was the 5c value from that year’s National Fête issue, marking the centenary of the first federal stamps of Switzerland. For a number of years this would be his only stamp, as Karl concentrated on travelling before settling down and starting a family. He kept himself sharp by engraving smaller works, to hone his skills and get used to engraving in small dimensions.

INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATIONS

In 1955, the United Nations celebrated its tenth anniversary. It was the perfect excuse to issue a commemorative set that year, but it would also be the starting point for the first of many specially designed definitives for the various international organisations based in Switzerland. Karl Bickel’s career as a stamp engraver got kick-started properly when he got the chance to be one of the small team of engravers who would produce these sets. His first contribution was for that first definitive set, issued for the United Nations. He engraved the design of the winged angel, with the other design engraved by Albert Yersin. The winged angel design would be used twice more in slightly adapted form; in 1962 for a set marking the opening of the UN philatelic museum in Geneva, and in 1963 for an issue promoting the UNCSAT (UN Scientific and Technological Conference), again in Geneva.

The UN definitive set was followed in 1956 by new definitives for the International Labour Office. This time, Karl got to engrave both designs used for this set. The Universal Postal Union definitives were up next, in 1957, again engraved solely by Karl. The 1958 definitives for the International Bureau of Education were a joint effort by Karl Bickel and Karin Lieven, with Karl engraving the design of the Pestalozzi Monument in Yverdon.

Finally, Karl would engrave a set to mark the centenary of the World Meteorological Organization in 1973.

SWISS PTT

In 1958, when Switzerland had a stand at the World Expo in Brussels, the Swiss PTT thought it might be a good idea to produce promotional stamp labels which they could hand out at the expo. By that time, Karl Bickel had been engraving a good number of those sets for the international organisations. The PTT appreciated his subtle engraving technique, so they asked him to design and engrave a number of labels which would promote their work. Karl engraved four different designs, which were each printed in coils in three different colours (blue, brown and green), se-tenant with other, non-recess, labels. Each of the designs had a slogan in French celebrating the work of the Swiss philatelic bureau.

In 1980, the Swiss PTT would once again turn to Karl for their promotional work. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the PTT Stamp Printing Works, a special sheetlet was designed which included an unadopted design for a definitive stamp in the 1960s. The central design would be engraved by Karl, who had also engraved that particular die essay back then.

In 1984, Karl was once again involved in philatelic activities of the Swiss postal authorities, when he engraved one of the souvenir sheetlets promoting the NABA ZÜRI 84 philatelic exhibition.

KARL BICKEL SENIOR

That particular sheetlet was centred around the engraved portrait Karl Jr made of his father who had only recently passed away. It was yet another time the paths of the two engravers would cross. Not only did the father teach the son the art of stamp engraving, the two also worked together on a number of issues. Not all of these were officially credited to both at the time, but research has since shown how this collaboration took shape.

In 1956, Karl Jr engraved the portrait of Carlo Maderno for the Swiss Pro Juventute series and in 1964 he engraved the portrait of Peter Kaiser for a Liechtenstein stamp. Both stamps are officially only credited to Karl Bickel Sr but signed sheets show it was actually the son who engraved these stamps, a fact which has recently (2016) been confirmed by the widow of Karl Jr, Mrs Verena Bickel Courtin. As is well known, the 1965 Madonna stamp for Liechtenstein was engraved by both men, and credited to both on the actual sheet. Karl Sr engraved the Madonna, with Karl Jr responsible for the intricate background engraving.

In 1984 we have the afore-mentioned NABA sheetlet on which Karl Jr honoured his recently deceased father, and in 1986 he engraved the self-portrait of his father as it appears in his Paxmal monument, for a special cover produced to mark the exhibition held in honour of the birth centenary of Karl Sr.

SWISS DEFINITIVES

Karl Bickel Jr’s work on Swiss definitives is concentrated mainly on the 1982 Zodiac & landscapes issue. For this set he engraved six of the fourteen values. His first two definitive stamps, though, were part of the 1973 Landscapes set and its high value Architecture counterpart. Karl engraved the 35c depicting houses in central Switzerland, issued in 1975, and the 3f value depicting a font in the St Maurice Church in Saanen, issued in 1979.

Having had the opportunity to meet the Bickel family in Switzerland and see the archive of all the die essays Karl Bickel Junior ever made, it is clear that, especially when it comes to definitives, there’s much more than meets the eye. The archive included a large number of dies engraved for various definitive sets, with designs which would eventually either not be used or which would be engraved by others. The collection is a perfect illustration of how much work goes into the production of a new definitive set.

While some die essays can not be positively attributed to certain sets, at least not without further archive material from the Swiss PTT becoming public, a good number of them actually are attributable. In Karl’s case, four major sets can be identified for which he engraved die essays.

The two most interesting of those are the work he did for the definitives of the early 1960s. In the initial stages of the design process for what was to become the 1960 Architectural Monuments set, the idea had been to combine a number of buildings per city per stamp, or even combine famous buildings with famous persons. A few of the essays with such ideas worked out can be found in the Bickel archive. But even when the final design theme was decided on, many die essays were made to be able to see what the series would look like. These die essays were mainly engraved by both Karl Bickel Jr and Karin Lieven. The majority of those resemble the eventual stamps (which, by the way, would all be engraved by Albert Yersin), but there are some which did not end up in the eventual series. Among Karl’s lot of essays were the engravings for Chur and St Gallen which were kept on a reserve list of designs which could possibly still be used.

Even more work was done for the 1961 Evangelists set. At the beginning, this was billed as a high value definitive set with themes as wide-ranging as humanitarianism, Christianity or democracy. Needless to say, this wide remit yielded a dazzling array of designs, which were all translated into engraved dies. Again, we find Karl Bickel taking on quite a few of these, mainly of the ‘Christianity’ designs. He also trialled a few of the evangelists designs, which would eventually be chosen for this set, though with the stamps themselves engraved by Heinrich Heusser.

Furthermore, Karl engraved a few essays for the 1970 numeral coil stamps and even as late as 1989, when he hadn’t had any stamp work of his issued for some four years, he engraved a die essay for the new Occupations definitives.

EYE FOR DETAIL

It could be argued that the collection of stamps issued for these international organisations is the most iconic part of Karl Bickel’s work. This, however, may be more thanks to the designers than the engraver. After all, in sharp contrast with his father’s work, Karl Jr rarely designed the stamps he engraved. It made him feel more like a production assistant than an artist. In an interview he once stated that the stamp designers of his time had perfected the designs for engravers so well, with every dot and line being indicated, that it basically left no room for any artistic input from the engraver.

This didn’t make Karl love his job any less though. After all, he had his private art to satisfy all of his artistic tendencies; mainly in his paintings but also in his engravings. Having been born into an engraver’s family and having been taught by his father, Karl Jr had love for sharp and minuscule details oozing from every pore. “Das kommt meiner Haut heraus”, he used to say. Karl would pick his 1972 engraving of Schönegg as one of his best works.

In 1963, to augment his income from his stamp engravings and the odd sale of his private art, Karl Bickel applied for a job at the newly opened secondary school in nearby Sargans. He managed to get a position as an art teacher and would stay with the school until his retirement. It did provide Karl and his family with financial stability but had the disadvantage of course that all his other work had to be done in the little spare time he had left.

In his early days, Karl Junior used to work in his father’s studio, using the equipment already there. But a move away from the parental house in the 1960s to Walenstadt made these arrangements more time consuming, and Karl proceeded to build his own studio next to his house. It would also incorporate a more elaborate printing facility which would benefit his stamp work. Still the dreamy introvert that his lonesome life in the mountains had made him, Karl would spend most of his spare time in there.

PORTRAITS

In his private art, Karl became more and more known for his beautiful portrait paintings. These are often regarded as his best work. Again, we find him mainly working with oil, but the odd engraved portrait exists as well. In his stamp work, too, Karl has shown he is a master at portrait engraving. He was responsible for three portrait sets issued in the 1970s, of which the 1977 Aviation Pioneers and the 1978 Celebrities sets are the most conventional. While the pioneers’ portraits may seem a little stiff, and are probably hampered by the use of various printing processes, those of the 1978 set are very well executed. The portraits of Jung and Piccard, especially, really capture the personality of the person and manage to make the portraits feel alive.

But arguably the most successful portraits engraved by Karl are those of the 1972 Swiss Celebrities set. This may be partly due to the very successful partnership with the well-known Swiss designer Hans Erni. The portraits seem to be a combination of traditional design and the specific Erni style, which is characterised by its flowing lines. The Einstein portrait, especially, is the perfect example. Karl Jr managed to feel exactly what Erni as designer was trying to accomplish and translated the design into a wonderfully engraved portrait.

EUROPA

Surprisingly perhaps, we find Karl’s most remarkable work among his engravings for the various Europa stamps Switzerland has issued throughout the years. The early ones are basic enough, with Karl engraving the omnibus designs for the years 1961, 1964 and 1973. By 1977, the annual Europa issues had abandoned the use of omnibus designs in favour of a central theme.

In 1977, the theme was ‘Landscapes’, and the Swiss PTT decide on two well-known scenic areas: the Jura and the Engadin. Max Müller was commissioned to engrave the Jura stamp, and Karl Bickel was asked to engrave the Engadin stamp. The set’s designer Klaus Oberli had already submitted a design, of Sils Maria, but Karl asked if it could be changed. The Engadin region, after all, was where his wife was from, where he had met her, married her and where they had lived for a while. The PTT agreed and that’s how Karl got to design his one and only postage stamp, choosing a part of Engadin, Sils Baselgia, which was close to his heart.

In 1986, the Europa stamps were designed by Hans Erni. The designer, having been extremely pleased with Karl’s work on his portrait stamps in 1972, agreed to the job on the one condition that the stamps would be engraved by Karl. Together they created two vintage Erni designs, which impressed the philatelic brotherhood so much that it won various awards, among which the Grand Prix de l’Art Philatélique of France. Erni always remained very vocal about his praise for Karl’s work. The die proofs of the two stamps show how intricate the engraving was and how much it supported the whole design.

This triumph for both Hans Erni and Karl Bickel was to be Karl’s final stamp work. A reduced demand for engraved stamps, coupled with personal tragedy and illness, meant that Karl would engrave no more stamps. He passed away at the age of 73 on 27 January 2001. With his passing ended an era of seven decades in which both father and son Bickel had dominated Swiss stamp production.

This article was originally published in Gibbons Stamp Monthly of September 2017 and is reproduced with their kind permission.

You will find Karl Bickel Junior's database HERE.

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