PIOTR NASZARKOWSKI: IN SLANIA'S WAKE

SETTING THE SCENE

Piotr Naszarkowski was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1952. He grew up in an artistic family. His father was an architect, his mother an actress and his sister a visual artist. From an early age, Piotr showed artistic talent too, especially when it came to drawing. In 1975, he entered the Academy of Arts in Warsaw, where he occupied himself mainly with painting. Whilst not directly interested in graphic art, he did want to become a cartoonist, but was advised not to, but instead to continue his painting.

While at the Academy, Naszarkowski met his future wife, who worked in the theatre. It made him rethink his artistic future once again and eventually he decided to become a scenographer. In 1980, Naszarkowski finished his studies with a degree in amongst others Theatre and TV Scenography. By then, he had already worked for a well-known puppet theatre in Warsaw for two years, and soon landed a job as an assistant scenographer for Polish television.

But his career was cut short when a political crisis in December 1981 led to the militarisation of the Polish media, which meant that Naszarkowski, together with most of his colleagues, was laid off. Theatres were also closed as they were seen as meeting places of opposition factions, so Naszarkowski’s options ran out pretty quickly.

AN ENGRAVER IS BORN

By chance, Piotr heard about a vacancy for an engraver at the state printers in Warsaw. Applying, just for the heck of it, Naszarkowski soon found himself hired without even being able to engrave! What helped him, though, was that he was keenly interested in the art form, having studied the work of various classic engravers such as Rembrandt and Callot.

Naszarkowski joined a team of three in-house engravers and spent his first year learning the ropes. He received his training from the Polish engraver Barbara Kowalska. During this time he studied with care the many stamps engraved by his fellow countryman, Czeslaw Slania, who had moved to Sweden in 1956 and had acquired a position of eminence throughout the years, because of his unrivalled engraving talent. Although Naszarkowski was given a full-time position, there was usually not enough work to go round. Poland only issued a few engraved stamps per year, and in the time Naszarkowski worked for the state printers, he engraved less than ten stamps. His first one was issued in 1985, marking the 40th anniversary of the Polish Navy. The single stamp depicted the cadet ship Iskra.

To kill time, and to gain experience, Naszarkowski started engraving ex libris book plates. He sent his first one, engraved in 1983 and depicting Lucas Cranach, to a competition in Germany. His entry was not accepted because the engraving did not include his name, which was one of the stipulations, but it was featured in the magazine ‘Graphia’, after which Naszarkowski received many requests for bookplates from all over Europe.

Naszarkowski once said in an interview that although in general the quality of the engravings in Poland was very good, the printing facilities were not, so the end result was usually left wanting.

The stamps Naszarkowski engraved for the annual series of Polish Rulers are arguably his best work done for Poland during those years. He engraved the portraits of Mieszko I in 1986, Kazimierz I in 1988 and finally Boleslaw II The Bold in 1989. There is a fourth stamp in this series, a 1500z on 50z stamp from 1990, portraying Wladyslaw II The Exile, which bears Naszarkowski’s name, but this stamp was not engraved by him. By that time he had already moved to Sweden, and Naszarkowski has said it’s anyone’s guess who might have engraved that particular stamp, but it certainly wasn’t him.

SWEDEN

In 1989, Naszarkowski followed his compatriot Slania to Sweden, but for very different reasons. Whilst Slania fled an oppressive regime, it was Cupid’s arrows which brought Naszarkowski to Sweden! However, seeing that even stamp engravers cannot live on love alone, Naszarkowski had to try and find employ in his new homeland. His initial attempt to find work at the printers Tumba failed. He did, however, find work as an illustrator for a children’s book, collaborating with designer Inga-Karin Eriksson, who also provided a link to the Swedish Post.

When Naszarkowski himself contacted the Swedish Post, they told him he had to learn Swedish first and then come back to see if there was work for him. It took him half a year before he returned, did his test and was duly employed from April 1990. While Naszarkowski was never an official pupil of Slania, he did study the master’s work very thoroughly, and was rather proud and happy to be working with him.

Naszarkowski’s first issued stamps for Sweden date from January 1991, comprising three values of the ‘Maps’ set. They were followed quickly by what was actually Naszarkowski’s first work for the Swedish Post: the engraving of Drottningholm Palace, as part of the high value series of palaces and castles. These would normally have been engraved by Naszarkowski’s colleague Zlatko Jakus, but he was abroad a lot and sort of on his way out anyway, so Naszarkowski got the job.

It wasn’t the easiest of consignments, though, with a value change halfway through the process meaning a lot of extra work, and the final colour scheme deviating from the original, more accurate colours, yielding a rather pale stamp. Both Naszarkowski as engraver and Inga-karin Eriksson as designer felt that the end-product did not live up to their expectations.

Nevertheless, they went on to collaborate again on various architecture stamps. In 1994, their joint attempt at yet another of those high value castle stamps, depicting Vadstena Castle, never made it beyond the die proof stage, but in 1996, they created three stamps as part of the annual ‘Traditional Buildings’ series. Although well enough received by the general public, Naszarkowski does not really rate them. This probably stems from the fact that the original designs were already so detailed that he merely had to engrave the lines already given, leaving hardly any room for any personal artistic input.


More engravings were to follow for the ‘Traditional Buildings’ series, though now no longer in collaboration with Ms. Eriksson, and in 2003 to 2004 Naszarkowski engraved several values of a similar series called ‘Provincial Houses’. These latter were fully engraved and printed in recess only, and with their soft colours form quite an interesting little collection.

PORTRAITS

Like so many other engravers, Naszarkowski is known for his love of portrait engraving. He loves engraving them, especially because they’re so hard to do right. He enjoys interpreting the multitude of shapes which can be used to build up a face. Commenting on his Greta Garbo stamp, he once said that he was quite pleased with how he engraved her forehead, which he considers to be the hardest feature of a person to bring to life.

Naszarkowski’s first portrait stamp for the Swedish Post was that of the Nobel Prize winner Alva Myrdal, issued in 1991. A set of four stamps was produced, on which four different engravers worked. Naszarkowski was quite pleased with the result, and even more with the fact that this was a stamp printed only in recess, and in monochrome. Those are after all the two requisites for a perfect hand-engraved stamp. The deep ultramarine colour used on Naszarkowski’s stamp was even more advantageous to the stamp, as it’s one of the best colours to bring out the best in any engraving, besides black. The Swedish stamp committee agreed and heaped praise upon this particular stamp.

The engraving of Astrid Lindgren’s portrait is also one of Naszarkowski’s favourites. It was issued in 1996, as part of the Europa issue celebrating famous women. The other stamp in the set was engraved by Martin Mörck. Although the two engravers were given soft-toned essays to base their engravings on, Naszarkowski went ahead and produced a graphical interpretation of the essay rather than an identical copy. Using more forceful lines, the portrait he created had enormous depth and ‘life’. 

Unfortunately, Mörck did follow his essay much more closely, which resulted in a pair of stamps which do not really go together, the one being much paler than the other. Experiments with printing colours were needed to save the day, but could only help so far. Mörck went on to praise Naszarkowski’s work in his book on portrait engravings, illustrating his Lindgren stamp prominently.

That same year, Naszarkowski engraved two more portraits, of Hugo Theorell and Ragnar Granit, two Swedish Nobel Prize winners for Physiology and Medicine. Other portraits of note Naszarkowski engraved are those of the author Erik Bengtsson in 1994, of Secretary-General of the UN Dag Hammarskjold in 2005, and author Dario Fo in 2008.

PRIVATE ART

After his move to Sweden, Naszarkowski stopped engraving book plates, but did still find time for his own private art. Engravers need to work constantly to improve their skills, and it takes a very long time to improve their technique. Naszarkowski did this by creating various stamp-size portraits. He even started doing this while still in Poland, with the Roger Åkerblom ‘stamp’ being an early example. Throughout the years, many more followed, such as a beautiful portrait of Crown princess Victoria in 2005 and that of actress Ingrid Bergman in 2007.

PAPAL PORTRAITS

In 2005, Naszarkowski engraved a non-postal label of Pope Benedict XVI, after he had just become Pope following the death of another famous countryman of Naszarkowski’s: Pope John Paul II. Their shared Polish background is the likely reason for there being a bit of a papal theme running through Naszarkowski’s work, both in his private art and in his stamp commissions. While more engravings of Pope Benedict XVI feature on a 2008 Vatican City stamp issue, most of Naszarkowski’s engravings feature Pope John Paul II. A number of small format portraits exist but it is the 2014 joint issue of Poland and the Vatican City which holds most interest for us philatelists. A miniature sheet was issued that year to mark the canonisation of Pope John Paul II. It bears a magnificently engraved lifelike portrait of the pope. While the two sheets look fairly identical at first glance, except for the obvious differences in country name and value, if you take a closer look (which is always recommended when admiring hand-engraved stamps!) you’ll see that the halo around the pope’s head consists of a text, which is in Latin on the Vatican City stamp and in Polish on the Polish stamp. The amount of work that must have been involved is just mind-boggling.

NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS

Sweden had been honouring past Nobel Prize winners with stamp issues on a yearly basis, but in 1992 it was decided to issue stamps for that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Logistically, this proved quite a challenge because there was only a week between Derek Walcott being announced as the winner and the issue date of the stamps marking that event. Two stamps were designed, one with the winner’s portrait and the other with a handwritten manuscript. Slania was asked to engrave the portrait stamp, and Naszarkowski was happy enough to be chosen for the second stamp, because of the time pressure. Engraving the spidery thin handwriting of Walcott proved hard enough anyway. The stamps turned out very well, though, and were presented to the Nobel Prize winner during a ceremony with the two engravers present as well.

That following year, a similar issue was prepared for Toni Morrison winning the Nobel Prize. This time, Naszarkowski would pair up with the engraver Lars Sjööblom, who was asked to engrave the portrait stamp. For the other stamp, Naszarkowski was asked to engrave a water colour of Stockholm’s City Hall. Although he liked the fact that the free style of the original gave him enough scope for a similarly free graphic translation, it again was very much a rush job, with only just over a month available from the design phase to the day of issue. As stand-alone issues, the two stamps were good enough but they didn’t work as a pair, unlike the previous Walcott pair. Soon after, the Swedish Post pulled the plug on this idea of annual stamp issues for Nobel Literature Prize winners.


In 2011, Naszarkowski got the chance to honour one of his countrywomen, when Sweden and Poland produced a joint issue to mark the centenary of the Nobel Prize being awarded to Marie Curie. In Poland, a black print of (mainly) the engraved parts was issued, which lets one enjoy the art of the engraving much better. While at first sight the face of Marie Curie may seem rather shadowy, one only has to look at the actual photograph on which the engraving was based to acknowledge that the engraver has minutely translated the photograph into an engraving.

NON-STAMP COMMISSIONS

Alfred Nobel himself also features in Naszarkowski’s work, as part of collection of larger engravings which have been commissioned by the Swedish Post for various projects throughout the years. In 2001, Naszarkowski engraved a portrait of Nobel, marking the centenary of the Nobel Prize. That same year, he made a large engraving of the famous Swedish warship Wasa.

One of the earliest of such commissions Naszarkowski did for the Swedish Post dates from 1993, marking both the 20th anniversary of the King’s Accession and the Queen’s 50th birthday. Naszarkowski engraved two works; one of the royal couple and one of Princess Victoria. The limited edition engravings were made available by the Swedish Post in luxurious folders, and the royal couple were said to be very much taken with Naszarkowski’s work.

In 2004, the Swedish Post produced a little folder type brochure called 4 gravörer under lupp (4 engravers under the magnifying glass). The brochure included information on their four engravers; Martin Mörck, Lars Sjööblom, Czeslaw Slania, and Piotr Naszarkowski. Besides the usual biographical notes and little interview snippets, the brochure also included a specially commissioned engraved art work by each of the four engravers. Piotr Naszarkowski submitted an engraving of the statue of Mars and Venus, by the neo-classical sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel. The engraving took him five weeks to complete.

FAUNA

From his early days on in Sweden, Naszarkowski has produced some very fine stamp engravings depicting animals. His first one was that of a dolphin as part of a stamp design for a 1991 Nordic stamp. But it is his 1993 work for the Swedish ‘Wildlife’ definitive set which was and still is very much admired. Five different stamps were issued, depicting brown bears, a pole cat, a wolf and a lynx. Naszarkowski used a very dense engraving style, with which he could render the animals’ fur very naturally. A sixth stamp was added to the series in 1996, depicting a hedgehog. Again, the dense detail of the animal looks rather stunning to the admirer’s eye, even though Naszarkowski was more critical himself, saying he felt he had not been careful enough with the engraving. Just goes to show how high a standard these engravers set themselves.

In 1994, Naszarkowski was asked to be present at the Stockholm Water Festival. The Swedish Post had organised a booth for him at the waterside, close to the Royal Castle in Stockholm’s old town. There he could sit and demonstrate his engraving skills to the visiting public. He was engraving a ‘stamp’ of a hare, very much in the style of his recent animal stamps. Naszarkowski’s booth attracted plenty of visitors, but it’s fair to say they were probably more interested in the next door fun events such as jumping off high towers in cardboard boxes, into the water below. If you realise that engraving is very much a solitary engagement, with utter concentration a necessity, it is clear that these circumstances were not ideal for Naszarkowski. It’s probably nothing short of a miracle that the hare stamp turned out so well!

A few more animal stamps were issued which roughly fall in the same category with regards to style and look; in 2002 Naszarkowski engraved a high value definitive depicting an osprey, and in 2004 he engraved two values depicting pigeons, part of a set marking the centenary of the Swedish Pigeon Society.

With the animal issue of 2009, Naszarkowski seems to have come full circle. Were his first animal stamps known for their density, the 2009 stamps are known for their sparsity. Featuring three winter animals; the ptarmigan, the ermine and the alpine hare, the engravings are of an incredibly delicate nature, with the aid of a minimum of lines. The fact that they’re printed in monochrome, in a very suitable icy blue, helps the stamps a lot, and is once again proof that a quality engraving does not need more than one colour.

It must be said, though, that even though the 1993 animal stamps were printed in several colours, the colour schemes used were very muted and did not detract from the quality of the engraving. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the 1992 dinosaurs issue. And it would seem such an important commission for Naszarkowski as well, it being the first time he was allowed to both design and engrave a complete issue for the Swedish Post. But events running up to this issue were rather murky. Initially, the set would be a collaboration between Naszarkowski and Sjööblom, but sometime during the design phase, the latter disappeared from the proceedings as did all the work he had done so far. Naszarkowski was left to soldier on on his own.

After months of work on numerous essays, the Swedish post decided that from then on their new work ethos would be: the public likes pretty pictures so we’ll just give them pretty pictures. No longer being able to regard an engraving as a miniature work of art, or even a design as factually correct, work on the dinosaur stamps became ever more arduous. But Naszarkowski kept at it and submitted four good engravings.


Unfortunately, no-one had seen fit to tell him that the stamps would be printed in a combination of recess and four-coloured litho. The engravings submitted by Naszarkowski were meant for recess-printing only, and therefore far too dense for a multi-coloured litho underlay. The stamps were issued like that, however, and fair enough were rather popular, although that would have been more because of its subject matter than the artistic quality of the end product. Similarly, the 1994 cats issue of Sweden also suffered from the multi-process printing.


As an artist, Naszarkowski firmly believes that engraved stamps come out best when printed in monochrome. However, there are the odd exceptions, and the 1995 Wild Strawberries stamp, part of a six stamp set marking the centenary of motion pictures, is particularly well executed, even with a five colour litho underlay. The muted colour scheme really evokes the atmosphere of the actual film. It is a beautiful stamp anyway, and it is clear Naszarkowski pulled out all the stops to create it. No wonder, for it was his favourite film by Ingmar Bergman.

BLACK PRINTS

One really needs to hunt down die proofs of stamps printed in a combination of printing processes in order to appreciate the quality of the engraving, but these can be rather skeletal in nature, as the engraved parts are often only there to support the multi-coloured design printed in lithography or (photo) gravure. As these can be hard to find, an easier (and more affordable!) option is to try and find the many black prints that the Swedish post has issued over the years. These are normally souvenir sheetlets handed out to loyal customers at Christmas time, and they are printings of the engraved parts only. In the case of Naszarkowski’s work, the first of such black prints was issued as early as 1993, featuring his Europa stamps. It was followed by the 1995 Traditional Buildings issue, the 2000 Children’s Toys issue (a red print rather than a black print), the 2013 Tile Stoves issue, and finally the 2016 Bridges issue, which was also the final stamp issue Naszarkowski worked on.

Apart from these black prints which were printed in large numbers and relatively easy to find, there are two such black prints which are decidedly harder to find. The first one is that of the 1995 issue marking the centenary of motion pictures. It was only printed in small numbers and formed part of a limited edition book which celebrated 75 years of the Swedish State Printers.

The second rare item is a black print of the two stamps issued in 2007 to mark the 300th birth anniversary of Carl Linnaeus. Again, this formed part of a limited edition book, this time on Linnaeus himself.

BANKNOTES

One of the two Linnaeus stamps depicted a Linnaea borealis, or twin flower; a very delicate woodland flower, as can be judged from the delicate engraving. That flower also featured on a 20 kronor Swedish banknote, issued in 2015, again engraved by Naszarkowski. Most of his banknote work, however, was for ‘foreign’ countries. In 1997, he engraved a number of African scenes for various banknotes issued in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2000 he engraved two buildings for banknotes of the Dominican Republic, and in 2010 he was responsible for the engravings of buildings on some of the banknotes for Tanzania.

SLANIA’S PASSING

Czeslaw Slania kept on engraving stamps until in his eighties. Ill health did force him to give it up finally at the age of 83. He passed away on 17 March 2005. From late 2004, it fell to his fellow engraver and patriot Naszarkowski to take over any unfinished business. There were a few projects which had been given to Slania and which were either not yet started or unfinished.

The first of these was the Elvis Presley stamp for a Swedish set marking the 50th anniversary of his record ‘That’s Alright Mama’. Naszarkowski remembered that Slania had already started work on the engraving of the background but it had turned out rather bad. So Naszarkowski stepped in and finished the engraving. The stamp credits both engravers for their work done.

Another unfinished project of Slania’s was that of the joint issue of Sweden and the United States, marking the birth centenary of Greta Garbo. Slania had not yet started on these stamps, so the engraving is by Naszarkowski only. Two dies were made for the two stamps. The Swedish stamp was again printed with a coloured litho underlay, but the US stamp was printed in recess only. Unfortunately, the printing of the US stamp was not of the highest quality. At the time, the philatelic press wondered why, and came to the conclusion that the paper used for self-adhesive stamps probably did not absorb the ink as well as it should have. When comparing the printed stamp with the die proofs, it is clear that many details were lost. One more reason why so many engravers of old used to say that collectors should try and get hold of artist’s proofs, to properly appreciate the engraver’s art. Nevertheless, the Garbo stamps won Naszarkowski many international awards, and were even proclaimed the Most Beautiful Stamp in the World of 2005. They have since become iconic items, both within those countries’ catalogues as in Naszarkowski’s. And they were his 99th and 100th stamps as well.

A lesser known project of Slania’s Naszarkowski took over was the 2005/2006 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, which was to be issued in the United States in 2005. These federal ‘Duck Stamps’, as they are known as, are annually issued Hunting Permit revenue stamps, with 98% of the proceeds being used for wildlife conservation. Collectors of these duck stamps had voiced their disappointment about the printing quality of the stamps for some time. It was therefore decided to revert to (partly) engraved stamps. Slania was contracted by the printing firm Sennett Security Products to engrave the 2005/2006 version, which would be based on a painting of two male Hooded Mergansers by the American artist Mark S. Anderson. Slania produced a stamp design and even a preliminary drawing of the engraved parts, but never got round to actually engraving the stamp.

This job then fell to Naszarkowski who created his own drawing and based his engraving on that. The stamp was issued on 1 July 2005. It was also decided that year to issue special mini-sheets. These consisted of a single copy of the annual duck stamp in a slightly larger sheetlet which left space for the signature of the designer. These are printed in a limited quantity. The first one, for the 2005 stamp, was only printed in a quantity of 1000 and is now a very scarce item. All subsequent mini-sheets had print runs of 10,000 copies each.


Naszarkowski’s work on this duck stamp led to some more work done for the printing firm. In the spring of 2006, he was asked to engrave the federal duck stamp for the following year as well. The 2006/2007 duck stamp featured a Ross’ Goose, based on a painting by Sherrie Russell Meline. This stamp, issued on 1 June 2006, was also issued in a mini-sheet. While not being as scarce as the first of the sheetlets, it is still more special than those of the following years, because it is the only one which not only has a space for the original artist to place their autograph, but also a dedicated space for the engraver’s signature. The date of issue of this duck stamp coincided with the staging of the Washington 2006 International Philatelic Exhibition, at which Naszarkowski was present, so he could sign the mini-sheets in person. It is estimated that only around half of all printed sheetlets were signed by both the designer and engraver. The others carry either only the designer’s signature or no signature at all.

Naszarkowski did one more job for Sennett Security Products and that was the engraving of a label, depicting the dome of the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. The printing firm used the label on some rare promotional items produced for that philatelic exhibition in Washington. Naszarkowski would have one more foray into advertising, engraving a couple of labels for the Polish oil company Lotos.

In the 1960s, Slania had engraved a set of 23 labels portraying world champion boxers. In 2005, as a posthumous tribute to his colleague and patriot, Naszarkowski designed and engraved a final, 24th label in the same style but featuring Slania himself, as a world champion. The label portrays him holding his 1000th engraved stamp and a reference to the fact that Slania was entered into the Guinness World Record book for having engraved the largest postage stamp ever issued.

There was one more project Naszarkowski had to finish which may have been originally assigned to Slania. Together with Martin Mörck, Naszarkowski was asked to take over the engraving of a set of three stamps for Japan, marking various anniversaries, to be issued in November 2004. Although they were never told whether it had originally been Slania’s project, the timing does seem to suggest it, for it was when Slania was very ill. Naszarkowski engraved the stamp portraying the sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

RECENT ISSUES

It is true that even though Naszarkowski engraved quite a few stamps in the past decade, the majority are issued printed in both recess and litho. In his catalogue of recent recess-only stamps, though, rich pickings may be found, even besides the ones already mentioned. His two stamps issued in 2008 to mark the birth anniversary of the historian and writer Olaf von Dalin, for example, are among those. Worthy of study under a magnifying glass are his two stamps for the 2009 Architecture stamps; the structures are engraved with meticulous care. That goes for the 2010 engraving of a blue mussel as well. A litho colour underlay in this case really enhances the artwork. One of his final works which deserves praise, is the 2015 ‘Winter Trees’ issue for which Naszarkowski engraved three stamps. The studies of the snowy birch and ash, especially, are quite stunning, with all the tiny branches engraved in incredible detail.

RETIREMENT

Back in the day, much was made of the question whether Naszarkowski would be able to emulate the record amount of stamp engravings Slania managed to produce, especially with the former having just reached his 100th stamp milestone. It was not to be however. Even though Naszarkowski’s relation to the Swedish Post had changed back in 1992 from employee to freelancer, he happily relied on them to supply him with enough work to eke out a living.

But 2016 turned out to be a bad year for him and for philately in general. It was the year the Swedish Post decided to award the stamp printing contract to Cartor from 2017 on. Cartor does not have the facilities for recess printing, so this meant that no more hand-engraved recess-printed stamps would be issued, and that Sweden would join the large row of countries giving up on this noble art of stamp production.

Bad enough as that may be for the many admirers of this philatelic art form, it was even worse for Piotr Naszarkowski on a personal level. With one stroke of the pen he saw his main employ taken away from him. At the age of 64, a forced early retirement was on the cards; a turn of events he had not seen coming. Understandably disappointed, Naszarkowski has since decided to leave the profession. We can only hope that he will some day rekindle his love for engraving and produce some more work, whether it be philatelic or not. But until then, we have his substantial catalogue to admire and enjoy, for which, I hope, I have whetted your appetite!

This article was originally published in Gibbons Stamp Monthly of July and August 2018, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

You will find Piotr Naszarkowski's database HERE.

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