BIOGRAPHY: Alan Dow


“I’ve never really engraved a satisfactory portrait of The Queen”. This casual remark, made in an interview for the Penrose 82 International Review of the Graphic Arts, has haunted Alan Dow for ever. Collectors of his work have ever since been negating his remark, but taken in the context of the interview it need not necessarily be read as a criticism of his own engraving skills. It was more meant to highlight the fact that he always worked from photographs and was therefore recreating the photographer’s perception of The Queen, rather than modelling his own. Besides, the remark seemed to have also been aimed mainly at his work on banknotes, for no other engraver has engraved so many portraits on banknotes of The Queen as Alan Dow.

Nigel Alan Dow, born in London in 1929, commenced his training at the London School of Photo-Engraving, Lithography and Commercial Art. But hardly a year into his education he joined Bradbury Wilkinson for an initial trial period of a couple of months. This led to a prolonged seven-year period of training with the firm, until June 1951. During this period he enjoyed the guidance of the famous French engraver Max Ferré. Dow once said that he felt very fortunate to have had Ferré as his mentor. He admired his work and found that Ferré was a gifted and inspirational teacher.

The late 1940s, early 1950s were a time when the workload for engravers increased substantially, creating opportunities for Dow. Although officially training as a portrait engraver, he was given vignettes to engrave when only a few years into his apprenticeship.

Dow’s first stamps probably date from 1947, these being stamps engraved for Ethiopia. The problem with ascertaining which stamps should be attributed to Dow is that there are usually no official sources to consult. The main catalogues hardly make any mention of his name, so the little information that is around has been dug out of archives etc., and cannot always be corroborated. However, it is fairly certain that Dow was responsible for quite a few British Commonwealth definitives from the early 1950s. These would include a number of stamps dating from the late King George VI period, such as the 1½d, 2d and 2s stamps for the Cayman Islands and the 4c and 2$40 values for Dominica. 

After Dow had finished his apprenticeship in 1951, he was given portraits to engrave. One of the earliest ones was a portrait of Queen Salote of Tonga. The portrait was engraved in 1951 but only appeared on a 10 shilling definitive stamp in 1953.

The list grows substantially when we enter the early Queen Elizabeth II period. Apart from single stamps from larger sets, such as the 2½d Bermuda stamp from 1952 and the 15m, 40m and 100m stamps from Cyprus, dating from 1955, the complete lower values from both New Zealand (1953) and Fiji (1956) have been attributed to Dow. If anything, these stamps show that Dow was most certainly capable of rendering beautiful portraits of The Queen.

Dow has also engraved quite a few stamps and definitive sets for countries outside the British Commonwealth. Among others, he was responsible for the 1952 Libya definitives, the 1956 Morocco definitives for its southern zone, and the 1957 Iraq definitives. Most iconic among his ‘foreign’ work is probably that done for the 1955 Kings set of Portugal. Dow engraved the 90c and 2e values.

The die proofs for the 2e value show how much the basic design has been experimented with. The eventual portrait has many more light or even unengraved areas, which light up quite distinctly on the stamp. The background shading has been mirrored. The dark background near the face on the die proof makes the portrait stand out less well, so that's a very sensible change on the final design. The lettering in the right suffers a bit as a consequence, though. But given that they couldn't really shift it to the left side, it is probably the best solution they could come up with.

In the 1960s, Alan Dow became Chief Engraver at Bradbury Wilkinson. During this period he engraved the 1964 Shakespeare stamp and the 1966 Westminster Abbey stamp for Great Britain, although on the latter Dow only engraved the portrait of the Queen, the vignette being engraved by Frederick Warner.

When the first British Machin high values were being prepared in the late 1960s, two engravers were asked to create a master die: Alan Dow and Bob Godbehear. As an aid to the engravers, the final plaster cast made by Arnold Machin was re-photographed in such a way that the depth of the cast was more visible than on the photographs used for the low value photogravure stamps. The engraving by Godbehear was eventually chosen for the stamps which were issued in 1969.

In 1986, De La Rue took over Bradbury Wilkinson. Dow, together with many other staff members, left the company and found work at the Swedish firm Tumba Bruk, which had offices just outside of London. After these offices folded in 1991, De La Rue offered Dow a contract as a consultant with the guarantee of some actual portrait engraving being agreed upon as well. Dow stayed with De La Rue there until his retirement in 1997, but his work done during that time for engraving banknotes rather than stamps. 

You will find Alan Dow's database HERE.

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