BIOGRAPHY: Milos Ondracek

"Engraving is the classic medium through which a creator can express his individuality."

Born in Prague on 15 September 1936, Milos Ondracek attributes his talent for engraving to the fact that the family came from the highlands of Czechoslovakia, where people have long been known for their artistic skills.

He became interested in drawing when he was barely a teenager, and a teacher who saw his potential encouraged his parents to send him to the School of Arts & Crafts in Turnov.

Although his artistic education was geared towards metal engraving for jewellery, it also gave him his first encounter with freestyle engraving, for which he would later become renowned. A little homesick at first, Ondracek stayed the course and completed his schooling in 1955. 

After completing his military service in the 1950s, Ondracek went to work in the Czechoslovak cooperatives, mainly doing industrial engraving. But when his former tutor advertised for an engraver to work on banknotes at the State Printing Office in Prague, he seized his opportunity and was taken on board from 1960.

Working on banknotes logically extended to working on stamps, but it took Ondracek a while to break into this field. He took all the necessary steps, joined all the necessary unions and organisations, submitted his work to the relevant ministries, but nothing much happened. It has been suggested that the established stamp engravers, Jindra Schmidt and LadislavJirka, were none too keen on encouraging extra competition.

Eventually he forced open the door, when he submitted an engraving of St. Jerome, a 14th-century painting by Master Theodoric of Prague, which was accepted for use in the Art issue in 1969. One of his earliest attempts at stamp engraving, dating back to 1967, was also an Art stamp, depicting The Resurrection, by an unknown 14th century artist working for the Master of Vyssi Brod. It would finally be issued as part of the annual Art series in 1971.

Ondracek never looked back, and has since engraved hundreds of stamps, including multiple issues for Czechoslovakia every year from 1970 until its dissolution in 1992, and regular issues for both the Czech Republic and Slovakia from 1993 to date.

Ondracek is closely associated with multicoloured recess printing, which was all the rage by the 1970s. Although many of his stamps he created were of his own design, he is also rightly renowned for his engravings reproducing classical works of art.

The annual Art series of Czechoslovakia, started in 1966, has been continued to the present day by the Czech Republic, and a collection of these stamps would be a splendid celebration not only of historic art but also of Ondracek’s skills.

These engravings can be quite a challenge. Not only must the original work be hugely reduced in size, without losing its character, but several layers of engravings must be made to make the most of the limited number of printing colours available.

The process was explained visually quite brilliantly by the Czech Post in 2016, after yet another of Ondracek’s stamps received critical acclaim, both at home and abroad. Among other awards, it won in the ‘Best Intaglio Stamp’ category of the polls held biannually by the Government Postage Stamp Printers’ Association. The stamp in question was a depiction of Hans von Aachen’s ‘Head of a Woman’, for the Prague Castle issue of 2015, another annual series showcasing the Czech Republic’s many fine items from their art collections.

A special folder was produced which held printings from all the different plates that had to be engraved in order to create this multicoloured, fully engraved philatelic masterpiece. The whole printing process is done by hand, making it an enormously time-consuming process, but the end result is of such quality that it is definitely worth it.

This was the second time one of Ondracek's stamps was chosen for these special brochures. His Zavis Cross stamp of 2013 was the first to be treated in this way, and in 2018, his Francesco da Ponte stamp in the annual Prague Castle series was included in such a brochure.

When he started out on engraving works of art, Ondracek used to stand in front of the actual paintings for weeks on end, figuring out the best way to reproduce them in stamp format.

Amusingly, he remembers deciding in 1974 that an impressionist self-portrait by Ludvik Kuba was too hard to interpret, and initially declining the commission. He eventually accepted it, however, and was satisfied with the end result.

Ondracek has also been given the opportunity to engrave stamp portraits of three Presidents of his country: Vaclav Havel in 1990, Vaclav Klaus in 2003 and Milos Zeman in 2013. These were three rather varying experiences, with the stamp for President Vaclav Klaus being the hardest one to realise. To start with, the photographic material supplied for the design was not very helpful and a number of essays, submitted by Ondracek and another designer, were dismissed. Eventually a new essay, not by Ondracek, was chosen and Ondracek got to engrave it. This stamp was introduced in 2003.

Ondracek therefore dreaded the assignment of the definitive stamp for the following and current president, Milos Zeman, but that proved to be an altogether easier project. The photographic material was much better, and Zeman was easy to work with, admiring all Ondracek’s work. This stamp was introduced in 2013.

The project Ondracek says he enjoyed most was the image of Havel, the writer and dissident who was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution which brought down communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

Like everyone else in his country at that time he was greatly affected by these tumultuous events. The fact that he never met Havel, and had to work with outdated photographic references, failed to dampen his enthusiasm.

Ondracek’s work has won many awards. At least five times did the Czechoslovakian Ministry for Communications award him first prize for his stamp and banknote engravings. His stamps have been nominated frequently in the annual philatelic polls held by the newspaper Mlada Fronta. For a long time, they issued special souvenir sheets designed to complement the winner in the ‘Best Stamp’ category. These souvenir sheets are engraved as well, often by the same engraver of the winning stamp. Ondracek has engraved quite a few of these, which form a nice sideline collection of his work.

More importantly on an artistic level, though, was a new category ‘Engraver’s Best Interpretation of a Work of Art’, introduced in 1970, which, as the name suggests, focuses solely on the engraver’s skills. Again, we find Ondracek’s stamps included quite a few times, from 1974 onwards, when he won the category for his reproduction of Hero & Leander, part of a series illustrating the 17th- century Bratislava Tapestries.

Internationally, too, his work was noticed and appreciated. France declared a 1989 Czechoslovakian banknote of his to be the best in the world, and Germany thought likewise of his 1978 stamp depicting Old Prague and the Charles Bridge.

International recognition extended to being invited to engrave one of the definitives for the long-running Great Americans series of the United States: the 32c portraying the publishing magnate Henry Luce, issued in 1998. This was rather an odd commission, though, which was not made easier because Ondracek had to work with a middle man who had trouble supplying him with the needed specifications. In the end, Ondracek had to contact a philatelist collecting USA to be able to take measurements for the stamp engraving. When the stamp was finally issued, Ondracek only came to see it when a collector asked him to sign it for him!

On the whole, though, Ondracek only engraved for his home country. On the banknote side, he was responsible for the engravings on the majority of the banknotes ever issued in the Czech Republic. On the portrait of Komensky on the 200 korun banknote issued in 1996, Ondracek managed to hide his initials MO in a curl of the man’s beard, being one of the very few banknote engravers who ever got away with that.  

Ondracek is normally not one to point out his own favourite stamp engravings, preferring to look ahead rather than back, but on occasion he has mentioned a few he’s rather pleased with, such as the 2000 miniature sheet marking President Masaryk’s 150th birthday. The design of this sheet was by Oldrich Kulhanek, a designer Ondracek had a close professional partnership with for over two decades, from the early 1990s to Kulhanek’s demise in 2013.

When Ondracek turned eighty in 2016, the Czech Post organised a special exposition of his art work, featuring his Art and Prague Castle stamps, including his essays, designs, proofs and all other philatelically interesting material.

Reaching this milestone did not mean that Ondracek retired his burin. No, he would remain active until the very end, not laying down his tools before the Czech Republic decided at the end of 2019 to discontinue the issue of hand-engraved stamps. 

You will find Milos Ondracek's database HERE.