Pierre Gandon: An artist outwith fashion (part 1)

The phone rang just as his statuette of the Virgin Lady took a direct hit from a German bullet. It was the head of the French Post. “Quick, Pierre, General de Gaulle is coming to Paris tomorrow morning and he needs to choose the new French definitive design. There are four of you in the frame: Cheffer, Mazelin, Piel and you. Better get a design ready. Make haste, make haste!”

And so, in August 1944, while French and German soldiers were fighting all around him, Pierre Gandon sat down in his ravaged studio at Place de Furstenberg in Paris, and worked all night on his Marianne. He modelled her after his wife Jacqueline. This stamp, once chosen by De Gaulle, would revive his career as a stamp engraver.

And his career badly needed reinvigorating, because Gandon had been blacklisted for three months, for having engraved the French Tricolour Legion stamps back in 1942, and one of a number of non-postal labels associated with this issue. Those issues had become a symbol for the hated Vichy regime, although there is no indication whatsoever that those involved in the production were in any way doing more than they were jobwise obliged to do. In fact, it was later thought the committee dealing with these matters only picked on Gandon to set an example. No other engraver, or any other employee for that matter, got blacklisted, even though many worked for the French Post during the years of the Vichy regime, and similar material was engraved by other engravers.

Note, by the way, that the sheets of the Tricolour Legion stamps had a layout symbolising the blue, white and red of the French flag and that the white labels are indeed anything but blank, but albino printings of the stamp engraving. These blank labels are not, however, classed as postally valid stamps.

A slightly awkward moment arose for the French Post when the proposed Sarah Bernhardt stamp was to be issued in 1945, because it had already been engraved by Gandon before he got blacklisted and there was no time for a new engraving. There are indeed die proofs which show Gandon’s original engraving, with his name included and still without the surcharge. A face-saving solution was proposed: the stamp would be signed by another engraver, and both engravers would get payment for the job. That is how Charles Mazelin’s name ended up on this particular stamp.


It all had begun so swimmingly for Gandon. Born in l’Haye les Roses in the French Val de Marne on 20 January 1899 as the son of the famous (stamp) engraver Gaston Gandon, Pierre was from a young age fascinated by stamps. He marvelled at the bright colours and exotic names of faraway and unknown places such as Rarotonga and Tahiti. Stamps were a gateway for the young Pierre into an unknown world waiting to be explored.

Much as he loved his stamps, Pierre Gandon would never become a real stamp collector. He continued to enjoy and keep the odd beautiful stamp throughout his life, but it was the enjoyment of the art form rather than any collecting bug which moved him to do so. In fact, he would be rather atypical in his ‘collecting’ habits: he advocated for example that mint stamps should have their gum removed so it could not deteriorate the stamps. Also, Gandon was more interested in collecting the odd die proof rather than the actual stamp. He argued that only on a die proof could one admire the true talent of an engraver.

Gandon was able to enter the famous art school for engravers, the Ecole Estienne in Paris, at an early age. There, he became a pupil of the master engraver Antoine Dezarrois. The First World War meant a break in his studies, as he served with the French Air Force. After the war, Gandon attended the School of Fine Arts in Paris and in 1921 he won the coveted Grand Prix de Rome, for his engraving of Prometheus.

In his early career, Gandon worked as a painter and book illustrator. In 1919, he got acquainted with the Brussels publishing house Editions du Nord, for which he went on to illustrate a number of books. He created many illustrations for books of the likes of Georges Sand, Stendhal and Kipling.


But from the 1930s, Gandon got involved with the French postal authorities. His first philatelic work was a design for the 1934 French issue to mark the fourth centenary of Cartier’s discovery of Canada. Since Gandon had no lifelike portrait of Cartier to fall back on, he just donned a cotton beard and photographed himself in the mirror. His design was not accepted, despite several sources stating that Gandon was the designer of the eventual stamps, but it seems obvious that Achille Ouvré, whose design was eventually accepted, was more than a little inspired by Gandon’s work. Gandon’s unadopted ‘self-portrait’ was to feature once again, and this time more successfully, later in his career. But we’ll come to that.

It would take a few more years before Gandon finally entered the stamp catalogues. This was in 1939, when he engraved a number of stamps for a new definitive set for French Morocco. Gandon engraved no less than four of the ten designs for this set.

Gandon’s next milestone came in 1941, when his Dahomey definitive design of a indigenous woman was issued. It is often hailed as his first stamp, because it was both designed and engraved by Gandon. His work would be used for the five highest values of the set. As would happen quite frequently, Gandon modelled her after someone he knew; this time it was a Senegalese woman he used to know who dressed especially in exotic headgear for the occasion.

That same year, Gandon started working on French stamps. In October 1941, his engraving of a stamp designed by Lemagny, with a surcharge for the National Seamen’s Relief Fund, was issued. A few weeks later, Gandon’s Arms of Reims stamp, the first French stamp both designed and engraved by him, was issued.



During the war, philatelic exhibitions were held annually in Paris, with souvenir sheets being printed which would be sold with a surcharge for suffering artists. The engraved labels were to be a showcase of both the experienced engravers of the French Post, and the up and coming young engravers who had yet to prove their worth. Pierre Gandon submitted engravings for all three sheets, issued in 1941, 1942 and 1943. Curiously, the actual years mentioned on the labels are 1942, 1943 and 1944, which was probably done because the stamp shows took place at the end of the year.

Father and son Gandon were personifying the authorities’ approach of featuring both established and young artists like no other, as they both engraved a vignette for the first of those sheets, featuring Parisian sights and issued during the 1941 show. Gaston engraved a view of the École Militaire and Pierre engraved an illustration of the Tomb of Napoleon. Unfortunately, the father passed away days before he was to sign his die proofs, which were sold at the show as well, so his son Pierre stepped in and signed the proofs of his father’s work.

After the darker moments in his career at the end of the Second World War, Gandon embarked on a glorious career, becoming one of the best known French engravers ever. No less than three times was he granted the opportunity to engrave a Marianne definitive. His first one, introduced in 1945, carried his name: Marianne de Gandon. Though mainly printed by letterpress, there were five low values printed in recess and also four high values of a larger format printed in recess. These were all engraved by Gandon, with the 4f low value being the original engraving. These stamps naturally showcase his work at its best.

The portrayal of this Marianne, with her slightly haggard look and bags under her eyes, was not to everyone's taste and came in for some criticism. But Gandon always defended her, saying it was a portrait of someone emerging from the devastation of war.

In the long run, even before it became the iconic stamp it is nowadays, the design proved popular enough and it was used for other issues as well. In 1949, the design was used again, for an issue marking the centenary of French stamps. That same year, Charles Mazelin engraved a non-postal label for a stamp show using the Marianne de Gandon design.


Even as recently as 2015, Gandon’s Marianne was reissued in a miniature sheet marking the 70th anniversary of liberation, as a 1 euro value. If for nothing else, the issue is interesting because it shows the difference between the time-honoured printing method making use of transfer rollers, and the more modern approach of scanning the hand-made engraving into a computer which then directs a laser to create the printing cylinder.


It was not just Gandon’s Marianne which soon became a classic; in the years after the war, Gandon engraved a number of other stamps which have become classics in their own right. First among those was his 1946-7 set of airmail stamps depicting mythological scenes. Planned for release in 1946, one value was delayed until 1947. This was the 100fr stamp depicting Jupiter carrying off Egine. The postal authorities were unfamiliar with this particular story and were none too pleased with what they saw as an overly erotic illustration. So Gandon had to re-engrave this particular stamp, turning the figures around to make them more palatable to the authorities’ tastes.

The mythological airmail stamps were among the very first to be printed in special ‘deluxe’ sheetlets which had the four designs in one proof sheet. These sheets replaced the imperforate versions of stamps which up to then would be printed in small quantities to be handed out to a number of officials and other VIPs. The mythology sheet is very rare indeed with only 13 copies printed.

Another airmail stamp which has become a Gandon Classic is his 1947 500fr stamp with a view of Paris and a seagull hovering over it. It marked the 12th congress of the Universal Postal Union. That seagull was nearly Gandon’s undoing, because the minister in charge of postal matters would not believe that there were seagulls in Paris. Gandon had to take the man up to the very spot from where he had designed his stamp to prove that they really flew that far inland, before he was allowed to proceed with his design!

This may well be why Gandon decided to add swallows to his next grand airmail stamp. Issued in 1949 as part of a set marking the International Telephone and Telegraph Congress, the 100f depicts the Alexander III Bridge and the Petit Palais in Paris. It would take a while, but in 2018, this stamp would posthumously become Gandon’s earliest work to win the Grand Prix de l’Art Philatélique. That year, it was reissued as a €4 stamp in a sheetlet promoting the Paris-Philex stamp show of 2018, together with a number of other stamps depicting Parisian views. With the exception of the new value, the original engraving was used to create this stamp.


One only needs to look at the list of Gandon’s stamps which won him that coveted Grand Prix de l’Art Philatélique to see how celebrated his work was. Inaugurated in 1951, Gandon won the prize four times in its first ten years of existence.

The first of these was for his work as a designer, rather than an engraver, for the 1953 ‘Haute Couture’ stamp. It was the first of a series called National Industries, which Gandon designed and for which he engraved a number of values.

He himself was none too pleased with the actual stamp, stating that he did not like the chosen colour of violet as it didn’t suit the design. He was rather miffed that he had not been consulted at the time, especially when he was wont to suggest colours that would suit his stamps, as can be seen on the illustrated proof sheet of the Jewellery stamp from the same set. The handwritten note on the proof sheet, suggesting a certain colour scheme (which unfortunately has been cut off), perfectly illustrates the inevitable battles between engraver/designer and the authorities when it came to colour choice!

And colour choice was not the only ‘interference’ Gandon had to deal with. Take the Rare Books and Bookbinding value, for example; the background depicts the Institut de France, but Gandon had originally envisaged depicting the church at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where ancient pre-1500s books were printed. But a minister involved apparently had such bad memories of the district, because his wife’s mantle had been stolen from their car there, that he insisted it be replaced with a different background.

The set includes yet another of Gandon’s inner circle: his daughter posed for the Gloves value, although Gandon’s relatives are forgiven for not noticing any likeness: he only used her elegantly poised arm!


The first – and arguably the most spectacular – stamp, both designed and engraved by him, for which Gandon won the Grand Prix de l’Art Philatélique, was one for French Polynesia, or the French Oceanic Settlements, as it was called back in 1955. The beautifully engraved image of the young Bora Bora girl was based on a dancing girl named Tumata Teutau, who Gandon noticed in a 1950s film.

Other notable winners were the 1961 French stamp depicting Cézanne’s Card Players and the 1964 stamp depicting the tapestry The Lady with the Unicorn. They formed part of a new annual series of Art stamps, inaugurated in 1961, for which Gandon would engrave many stamps in the following two decades.

Gandon’s 1959 Stamp Day stamp, depicting a Douglas DC-3 making a night-landing, won him the Grand Prix de l’Europe. The stamp would be reissued in 1964, with the extra inscription ‘25e anniversaire’ as it marked the 25th anniversary of the French Night Airmail Service. As he had served in the French Air Force during World War One, Gandon took pleasure in engraving the many stamps for France and other countries featuring various aeroplanes.


Although Gandon always maintained he enjoyed engraving all subject matter, he must have been particularly pleased when the odd bird stamp was asked for, being a self-styled ornithologist. He was wont to step outside during his few breaks from work and enjoy the sounds and sights of the birds around him. From his aforementioned classics of the 1940s, it becomes clear he liked to include birds where he could.

Best known are probably his stamps for the 1960 French Nature Protection set; a set of four bird stamps which he all designed and of which he engraved three, the fourth one with the lapwings being engraved by Charles Mazelin. These stamps are extra special because they are the first ones printed with the new TD-6 press procured by the French printers. These could print six different colours, for which two engraved dies were needed, each being capable of printing three colours. The puffin stamp was the very first stamp rolling off that press.

But it was with his ‘pigeon-fanciers’ stamp of 1957 with which Gandon had the most success, coming very close to winning ‘most beautiful stamp’ that year, being only just pipped to the post by a stamp engraved by René Cottet.


Gandon also engraved a number of test stamps. For the Chambon machines he designed two test stamps, depicting Estienne and Palissy, respectively. These were used for the development of rotary recess-printing presses. They were however not engraved by him; the Estienne stamp was engraved by Henry Cheffer in 1949, and the Palissy stamp was engraved by André Freres, in 1954.

In the 1950s and 60s, Gandon worked on a number of test stamps for the French firm Marinoni who were the main supplier of rotary presses for the French stamp printers Atelier du Timbre. Of these, some were engraved by him as well.

In 1950, we rediscover that unadopted Cartier design Gandon had made back in the 1930s for a Cartier stamp issue. He engraved a large version of which imperforate prints were made in blue, red and multicolour. These were made for testing the existing TD3 printing presses. For the new TD6 printing presses, that same engraving by Gandon was used, but only a small part of it. These test stamps, which exist both imperforate and perforated in a number of colours, date from 1964/5.

In 1965, Gandon created another test stamp for Marinoni. This time, the design featured a snake in a tree. Once again, a large engraving exists in a multi-coloured imperforate version, whereas the stamp-size version exists in various colours, both imperforate and perforated. The design is unique, but resembles closely the 500f airmail stamp Gandon designed and engraved in 1953 for French Equatorial Africa.

Meanwhile, the Atelier du Timbre themselves had also asked Gandon for a test stamp. For them, he engraved a butterfly stamp called Papilio supremus in 1960. These were printed in three or four colours. These were the test stamps used before the French post started printing their first stamps on their new TD-6 presses, Gandon’s 1960 French bird stamps.

This test stamp showcased another of Gandon’s favourite design themes. He himself was an avid butterfly collector, and he would take pride in showing his collection to any philatelist happy enough to be allowed into his inner circle. The test stamp could also be seen as a trial for further butterfly issues Gandon was to either design and / or engrave. His 1960 stamps for the Malagasy Republic especially, are of an outstanding beauty, and the detail of the designs makes one think he must have had these particular specimens in his collection as well.

To be continued!

This article was first published in Gibbons Stamp Monthly in September and October 2020 and is reproduced here with their kind permission.