BIOGRAPHY: Sverre Morken

Sverre Morken was born in Folldal, Norway, on 19 April 1945. When he was 15 years old, he went to sea on the cadet ship Christian Radich, a ship he was able to engrave a stamp of in 1981! He later sailed on cargo ships to places such as India, Burma and Australia.

Back on dry land, Morken went to the State Arts and Crafts Industry School (SHKS) in Oslo, where a number of well-known teachers taught him about graphic art. Morken admired the work of engravers such as Gerhard Edelinck and Robert Nanteuil, and especially Albrecht Dürer. He admired Dürer’s talent to create realistic, precise and clear engravings which at the same time were sensitive and alive.

One of Morken’s first jobs was at the Christiana Glass firm where, in 1968, he engraved the monogram of the soon to be wed royal couple of Norway into crystal.

When it became known that the Norwegian Bank Printing Works were looking for new engraving talent, one of his teachers told Morken to make enquiries. This led to him spending two summers there, learning the ropes of being a banknote engraver. It soon became clear that the job suited Morken very much and in 1972 he was employed by the printers.

The stamp engraver Henry Welde became his tutor and Morken got to engrave his first banknotes for the series introduced in 1983: a portrait of Grieg on the 500k and a portrait of Falsen on the 1000k banknotes. The printing works were also responsible for the printing of Norway’s postage stamps, and for this Morken was not only trained by Welde but also by another stamp engraver: Knut Løkke-Sørensen.

Morken learned quickly and was soon approached by the post office to engrave stamps. His first ones appeared as early as 1973: two stamps marking the bicentenary of the Norwegian Geographical Survey.

Obvious only to the initiated, Morken used to enjoy incorporating his homeland of the Folldal area with its spacious yet mighty mountain scenery, into his stamp designs. It can, for example be found on the 4k value of the 1985 set marking the centenary of electricity in Norway, while the 1988 wildlife definitive shows a reindeer from the area on the 3k80 value.

More personal influences can be found on the 2005 stamp of the lady writing a letter, part of the issue to mark the 150th anniversary of the first Norwegian stamps. He included his grandmother’s name and address (Ragnhild Morken, Folldal) in the design, on the letter lying on the table.

Morken’s stamps have garnered some prestigious awards through the years. In 1994, Morken was awarded the Robert Stolz trophy, by the Philatelic Music Circle, for his Grieg stamp issued in 1993. Morken beautifully managed to capture the sensitivity and sorrowful look of Grieg’s. He especially chose a photograph of the composer in his final year, which had that sorrowful feel about it. The portrait stamp was juxtaposed with a more upbeat stamp depicting ‘Spring’, referring to the composer’s many odes to Spring. It would not be the first time Morken had engraved a Grieg stamp of distinction. A decade earlier, he engraved a Grieg portrait on one of Norway’s Europa stamps. That particular stamp included the fully accurate score of Grieg’s Concerto in A minor. The stamp proved so popular that it was adapted to a test stamp three years later. But Morken liked his 1993 Grieg stamp best of the two.

Also in 1994, Morken’s Horses stamps, issued in the Faroe Islands in 1993, won in the category ‘Best Intaglio Stamp’ awarded by the Government Postage Stamp Printers’ Association. He would win again in the same category in 2000, for the 1999 Norwegian stamps marking the centenary of the National Theatre.

Morken’s set of engraved portraits for the 2001 set to mark the centenary of Nobel Prizes, were also noted by the philatelic brotherhood and regarded as the world’s most beautiful issue of that year during the international stamp show WIPA 2001.

As with so many engravers, Morken especially enjoys engraving portraits. Among his favourites are the two portraits he did in 1997 for the ‘Birth Anniversaries’ set. The portraits were of the composer Harald Saeverud and the author Tarjei Vesaas. Morken is very fond of both classical music and literature which made this an extra special assignment. It was a very time-consuming job, though, as Morken tried to capture each man’s personality. Saeverud had to be aristocratic with his snowy white hair, yet rather modest, with a slightly wondering gaze. Vesaas on the other hand, gazed into the faraway distance, and for him his beautiful forehead was his most striking feature. For Morken it is important to bring out all these characteristics, because they are part of one’s personality.

Another of his portrait master pieces is the 1996 stamp marking the 150th birth anniversary of the writer Amalie Skram, which took Morken some five weeks to engrave. This portrait in particular shows that it is not just facial features which are important when creating a portrait engraving, but one really needs to know one’s subject, needs to be able to read their look. Looks give away a personality; they can be dreamy, fiery, forward looking, hurtful, open, criticising. All this needs to be captured and then to top it all the engraver needs to imagine what the portrayed person is looking at in that very instance. After all that is captured, light and shadow play an important part. That way, minor details, which would only detract, can be toned down.

The 1999 Centenary of National Theatre 3k60 stamp boasts Morken’s smallest portraits; those of Wenche Foss and Per Haugen. While such and really all stamp portraits form quite a challenge exactly because of their small format, Morken has proved to be just as masterful in engraver larger portraits for banknotes. His work for the so-called seventh series of Norwegian banknotes especially, has been praised. The portraits he engraved were those of Asbjørnsen on the 50k, Birkeland on the 200k, Undsted on the 500k and Munch on the 1000k.

Morken is most proud of his portrait of Kirsten Flagstad, on the 100k banknote. He portrayed the opera singer as a very young woman of barely nineteen, from an opera scene. It had been very much Morken’s doing that many of the famous people portrayed were shown at a younger age, rather than as worthy old people which was too often the way they would have been portrayed on the nation’s banknotes. That way, Morken had argued, the banknotes would show that a seed of greatness is locked away in all young people.

One of the obvious characteristics an engraver must possess is a steady hand. Morken once said in an interview that he has a special routine to keep his hand steady. Every day, before work starts, he lets his arms hang loose for a couple of minutes. He simultaneously tries to empty his mind and evoke a sense of calmness in his whole body. While working, he stops every hour or so and does some physical exercise such as push ups or rope jumping. He has even got a pull up bar in the room above his work studio, to keep the blood circulation going in his arms. When not engraving, Morken likes wood carving on a large scale. Again portraits, but in this field he doesn’t have to be so meticulously precise.

In 2004, by which time he had progressed to the status of Master Engraver and Head of the Design Department, Morken officially retired. He was given a gold medal by the Norwegian king for his achievements in design and graphic art.

Despite his retirement, Morken does go on working for the Norwegian post and has engraved the odd stamp issue since, with his two portrait stamps of 2008, marking the birth bicentenaries of Frederik Stang and Henrik Wergeland, being among his own firm favourites.

Morken may be deeply worried about the future of stamp and banknote engravers, but on the other hand sees a bit of sorely needed continuation happening, in that some young people are still being trained to become engravers.

Himself, he got to engrave portraits of the Norwegian King and Queen in 2012, on their 75th birthdays. Another notable recent issue was that of the 2014, marking the Bicentenary of the Constitution. His stamp of the Parliament Lion from that set was proclaimed the most beautiful engraved stamp in the world of that year.

In 2018, Morken announced his retirement, and he finished his working career very aptly, with a miniature sheet celebrating the Golden Wedding of the Norwegian king and queen, fifty years after he had executed his first engraving, in crystal, for that same couple.

You will find Sverre Morken's database HERE.