BIOGRAPHY: Charles Gordon Yorke

Charles Gordon Yorke was born in 1917 in Shellbrook, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. From an early age he was interested in art, so the College of Arts in Ontario was an obvious choice for him in the early 1930s. By 1935, he had already built up such an impressive portfolio of his work that he succeeded in getting a position as an engraver with the British American Bank Note Company in Ottawa. Together with another apprentice, George Gundersen, he was schooled further in the art of engraving by Harry Dawson, himself a well-known banknote engraver.

At first, Yorke was solely employed as a banknote engraver. His fine engravings grace many a Canadian banknote from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. These really form the highlight of his career, and his talent was such that he was allowed to engrave the vast majority of Canadian banknotes at that time. In fact, he engraved more vignettes for the American Bank Note Company than anyone else.

The notes, many of which show fascinating natural scenes, really show off his love of nature. Yorke was very much an outdoor man and in his spare time he would be most in his element when fishing or hunting.

It is clear from Yorke’s work that nature scenes were his forte, and on most banknotes Yorke could really live up to his reputation. But he also impressed with his portrait engraving on banknotes, which included that of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. In fact, Yorke’s reputation for engraving portraits spilled over into the commercial world when he was asked to engrave the portrait of Sandy McTire on the cash bonus coupons issued by the Canadian Tire Corporation Ltd. The coupons have a great following and even their own collectors club. Yorke is said to have been very proud of the portrait which remained in use from 1961 to 1992.

Yorke was a very modest man and would never have acknowledged his own talent, but the truth was that he highly admired the engravers of the 19th century, and tried hard to emulate their art. He really loved his work. Precision and care for detail were most important to him, more than speed of work. His beautiful classic engravings made him therefore one of the last of his kind.

Yorke’s first stamps were not for Canada but for the United Nations. For the World Fair ‘Expo 67’, held in Montreal, Canada, a special set was issued, depicting bas-reliefs from door panels of UN buildings. The stamp vignettes portraying Peace, Justice, Fraternity and Truth were engraved by Yorke.

This United Nations set was soon followed by more stamp engravings, from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, this time all for Canada. His first Canadian engraved stamp was the 1969 issue to mark the 50th anniversary of the first non-stop Transatlantic flight. It was soon followed by an issue to honour the physician Sir William Osler, a stamp which shows Yorke’s talent as a portrait engraver.

It could be argued though that his ship stamps from 1975, which will have been one of his final engravings, are his best work on stamps. The engravings show incredible detail without the design ever becoming cluttered.

It was an enormous blow to Yorke when, in 1976, he was diagnosed with having a degenerative neurological disease. It forced him to retire almost immediately and soon after landed him in a wheelchair. He was therefore never able to continue the annual Ships series that Canada had just started, with the remainder of that series being engraved by Yves Baril.

Yorke’s final years saw a rapid deterioration of his health and in May 1980 he died of complications relating to his illness. The obituary in the Canadian Paper Money Journal remembered him as “a sensitive, thoughtful person who was neither arrogant nor aloof despite his formidable talents”.

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