BIOGRAPHY: John Carmichael

There is some confusion over various biographical details concerning John Carmichael. Some say he was born in 1811, others, like Karen Eaton in an authoritative article in the November 2015 issue of Australiana, come up with a specific date: 27 December 1803.

Being deaf and dumb, he went to the Edinburgh, Deaf and Dumb Institution where he became known for his storytelling in sign language.  His drawing talent was also obvious from an early age. Thanks to the encouragement from the institute, Carmichael became an apprenctive of the Edinburgh engraver John Horsburgh.

In 1825, Carmichael emigrated on his own to Sydney, Australia, acquiring fame for being the first signing deaf immigrant to arrive in that country.

Through advertisements placed in local papers, Carmichael soon found plenty of employ, engraving maps and prints. In 1829, a book was published, ‘Select views of Sydney’, which featured his own artwork. In 1838, another book appeared, this time by James Maclehose, 'Picture of Sydney and Stranger's Guide in New South Wales', which was illustrated with engravings by Carmichael.

When it was decided to print New South Wales’ first postage stamps in recess, after disappointing trials in lithography, time pressure meant that three engravers (Robert Clayton, H C Jervis, and John Carmichael) were asked to engrave one of the three values to be issued. John Carmichael was asked to engrave the 2d value.  

Being both deaf and dumb, he did not want to sign a contract binding him to a certain completion date for his work. He did, however, solemnly give his word to finish on time and the authorities had to accept that as the best they would get. Carmichael proved true to his word.

At the time, Carmichael was considered the finest engraver in New South Wales, being head and shoulders above the other two working on the same set, and even now his work is regarded far superior compared to the other two stamps.

His essay for that stamp, which was only discovered in the 1860s, has been praised even more than the eventual stamps. It differs from the eventual stamps in many aspects, which meant that either the authorities reined him in after having deviated from the original design too much, or Carmichael must have thought it would have been an essay too hard to copy 24 times on a single plate. After all, there were no master dies of this stamp; Carmichael engraved 24 copies on a single printing plate.  

Carmichael’s reputation was such that New Zealand approached him as well, to produce engravings for their first stamps. In November 1850, they enquired whether Carmichael would be able to engrave dies for New Zealand, but the answer they received was that Carmichael was still busy engraving the dies for the new New South Wales stamps which would be issued in 1851, and would not be available to work for New Zealand before the summer of 1851. Eventually, it was William Humphrys who went on to engrave the Chalon portrait for New Zealand in 1855.

Carmichael's engravings of the New South Wales 1851 Laureated definitives were accepted but it was noted that the execution was inferior to his previous stamp work. This was, however, done during a period of personal distress, with Carmichael's first wife passing away. Carmichael's following and last stamp, the 6d value for registered letters issued in 1856, was once again done to full satisfaction.

By that time, however, Carmichael's personal life was in an even more sorrowful state: he was gravely ill and suffered from huge debts. The property CArmichael owned had been placed in the hands of trustees who had since left the colony and had not made any provisions for Carmichael to financially benefit from it.

Jon Carmichael passed away on 27 July 1857.

You will find John Carmichael's database HERE.