BIOGRAPHY: Jindra Schmidt

Unlike many great engravers, who were encouraged into the craft by their artistic fathers, Jindra Schmidt had an aunt to thank for pointing him in the right direction.

Born on 24 July 1897 in Racice, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Schmidt had a goldsmith for a father, but was orphaned at the tender age of three, and he and his elder brother were raised by his uncle.

When he professed an interest in becoming a painter, he was given no encouragement from his uncle, who thought that being an artist was a rather risky and uncertain career path. It was better to learn a proper trade.

Fate, however, lend a helping hand in the shape of an aunt from Vienna who, out of the blue, descended onto the scene, listened to the wee boy’s desires, and decided he should become an apprentice at her son-in-law’s shop, where the young Jindra could learn to be a wood engraver. That way, he would learn a trade and be able to be artistic at the same time.

And so, Schmidt came to work in the Karel Kubelka workshop in Vinohrady, taking art classes in the evening. Even then he must have been interested in stamps, because in 1918 he created woodcut stamp designs for the newly founded country of Czechoslovakia, surprisingly in a similar design as the eventual stamps by Mucha. That same year, Schmidt managed to get a job at a printing and publishing house in Prague. He stayed there until 1929, illustrating books with his woodcuts and engravings.

He was subsequently headhunted by the National Bank of Czechoslovakia, where he started engraving banknotes. His work was so impressive that it is still regarded as among the finest in the world. Highlights of his banknote engravings are the portraits of Peter Brandl and Peter Parler on Bohemia and Moravia banknotes of 1942.

Of particular interest is his engraving of the Bohemia & Moravia 50 kronen banknote of 1940. It features an allegory of Liberty, but the occupying forces demanded that she be portrayed without her Liberty Cap. While Schmidt had no option but to comply, he must have felt elated when he could re-engrave Liberty’s portrait for a liberated Czechoslovakia banknote of 100 korun, issued in 1945, this time proudly wearing her Liberty Cap.

He would remain with the bank for 33 years, and outside his normal working hours he would eventually become involved in stamp engraving as well.

His first piece of work was for a small-format stamp in the 1942 definitive issue of the Bohemia & Moravia Protectorate, after his homeland had been occupied by Germany during World War II. However, there is some uncertainty around his first stamp engravings. 

Presentation sheets exist of the 1942 definitives for Bohemia and Moravia which include Schmidt’s signature. Pencil annotations, although not by his own hand, state that the small format stamps from that set were engraved by Schmidt, with the other values engraved by Jaroslav Goldschmied. However, other sources state that Goldschmied engraved the whole set.

What confuses matters is that Schmidt and Goldschmied worked together on a number of issues. Goldschmied did not design himself, so Schmidt was responsible for all the keyline art, but the actual engravings were done by either man. Attributing work to a specific engraver has never been clear-cut, and, as with Schmidt's probable first stamps, sources often contradicted each other.

Having originally signed his stamp artwork using his full name, he decided after the end of the war to abbreviate this to ‘Jindra S.’ He later wrote that he had overheard some casual remarks at the ministry about his and other engravers’ surnames, suggesting that people might think that the Germans were still in charge of Czechoslovakian stamp production.

It was in the post-war years that Schmidt became part of what was perhaps the most powerful and fruitful collaboration between a designer and an engraver in philatelic history.

He became the favoured engraver for Max Svabinsky, the well-known Czech artist, and professor at the Academy of Arts in Prague, who was a prolific stamp designer.

They were close colleagues, with Schmidt translating Svabinsky’s designs into beautiful steel engravings again and again. They were also close personal friends, and every interview one can find with Schmidt is one anecdote after another about his work with Svabinsky.

Their mutual respect was cemented at the very beginning of their partnership, when Svabinsky produced a design promoting the 11th Sokol Congress in Prague in 1948, featuring athletes paying homage to an allegory of the Republic, and asked for it to be engraved and printed in recess.

The head of the printing works thought this could not be done, but Svabinsky asked Schmidt to try it anyway, and he managed to create beautiful engraving, which was duly recess-printed.

The pair produced many Czechoslovak stamp issues in the late 1940s, throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. While Schmidt was always keen to reproduce Svabinsky’s designs as faithfully as possible, there was an instance where he had to make more than a minor change.

In 1957, when they were preparing a set to honour the 17th-century Czech philosopher and educationalist Jan Komensky (better known in the west as John Comenius), a misunderstanding over the size of the portrait stamp meant that Schmidt found himself having to add quite a few millimetres to the design, by lengthening Komensky’s coat. Svabinsky didn’t notice this until Schmidt came clean about it. After initially branding him a ‘rascal’, he subsequently expressed his approval.

One of the last issues the two men worked on together was the ambitious Butterflies & Moths set of 1961. It was one of the first to be produced as a multicoloured printing, which required the creation of separate plates for each ink colour.

Accurate colour registration was of the utmost importance, and Svabinsky was apprehensive about the project, but Schmidt was confident it could be done. They tried one stamp from the set, the 30h depicting the Parnassius Apollo, Svabinsky’s favourite, first. As Schmidt had envisaged, it worked out fine, and the set became an absolute beauty to behold.

Working on this challenging set made Schmidt realise that he shouldn’t just be creating stamps as a second job, but should make it his full-time occupation. On retiring from the National Bank, that was exactly what he did, but no longer with his long-term collaborator by his side, as by this time Svabinsky had passed away.

Even after Svabinsky’s passing, the two would remain linked together. Svabinsky’s work would still be featured on the odd stamp issue, and it would still be Schmidt interpreting his work and turning it into stamp engravings. Out of respect for the professor, Schmidt would sign these stamps with his full surname.

Back in the 1940s, on one of the very rare occasions that the two men did not see to eye, Svabinsky had said to Schmidt he did not approve of the latter’s decision to sign his work Jindra S. He argued that Schmidt had already made a name for himself, a reputation which he could possibly jeopardise or at the least set back, as people would have to realize the two signatories were one and the same man. Besides, the history of Czechoslovakia was riddled with artists having German surnames. How ridiculous would it be if we were to decide to change all those.

But Schmidt had been adamant even though Svabinsky kept trying to persuade him to change his mind. And so, as a mark of honour, Schmidt signed those issues that posthumously honoured Svabinsky’s work with his full name.

And he soon proved that he could remain an important engraver even without his sidekick, producing many more exquisite stamps for Czechoslovakia throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

You need only to look at the result of the annual polls organised by the daily newspaper Mlada Fronta to see that his stamps frequently featured among his country’s most popular.

He won the Most Beautiful Stamp category for his 1969 engraving depicting a detail from a 16th-century mural of St Wenceslas, which was part of the annual Prague Castle issue.

Schmidt would the category again in 1971 for his ‘Paris Commune’ stamp and again in 1975 for his engraving of the 60h value from the Folk Customs set.

In 1970, he was the inaugural winner of the Engraver’s Best Interpretation of a Work of Art category, for his painstaking reproduction of Banska Bystrica Market, a painting by Dominik Skutecky, as part of the annual Art series.

He would win the same award again in 1973, for his interpretation of his old friend Svabinsky’s stained-glass window The Last Judgement, and in 1976, for his depiction of Cyril Bouda’s painting Oleander Blossoms.
Mlada Fronta used to produce special brochures each year, announcing the winners of their poll. These used to include special souvenir sheets as well, with engravings based on the winning stamp designs, produced by the engravers of those issues.

Naturally, Schmidt has engraved three of these as well, coinciding with his wins in 1969, 1971 and 1975, and they form a visually interesting sideline to his collection of stamps.

Even in his later years, Schmidt would remain active as a stamp engraver, with four or five issues appearing per year, until the - and his! - early 80s. Jindra Schmidt passed away in Prague on 12 March 1984. 

You will find Jindra Schmidt's database HERE.