BIOGRAPHY: Jiri Antonin Svengsbir

The Czechoslovakian engraver Jiri Svengsbir (1921-1983) loved two things passionately: the art of engraving and his hometown Prague. Thankfully for him, he was often able to combine the two, thereby creating some of the more stunning stamps issued in his home country.

In fact, Svengsbir’s very first stamp engravings, after having studied graphic art at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, was for the 1948 issue marking the 600th anniversary of the Charles IV University in Prague. Those designs were by Svolinsky, but Svengsbir would become one of the few Czechoslovak engravers who would normally also design their own stamps. This was nothing new to him: legend has it that he designed his first stamp at the age of seven, which he proudly stuck into his stamp album.

1965 was a good year for Svengsbir. He was the first to pioneer recreating an art work on a stamp in multicolour. A miniature sheet was issued with his engraving of Titian’s Lady at her Toilet. Not only was the concept new, Svengsbir was also the first Czechoslovakian engraver to try and use the so-called stipple technique, whereby tonal shades are created by engraving dots rather than a pattern of cross-hatching. But rather than using the time-honoured way of creating them with a needle, Svengsbir used his burin to create the stippling effect. According to him, this technique is perfect for recreating skin colour. The miniature sheet was such a success that it won the category ‘Most Beautiful Stamp’ of the newspaper Mlada Fronta’s recently introduced annual stamp poll. It would be the first time the winning engraver would create a special souvenir sheet for the occasion.

Furthermore, the artistic success of the issue saw the birth, in 1966, of the annual Art series, which has run until well into the 21st century. In that inaugural year, Svengsbir contributed a stamp depicting Vaclav Hollar’s ‘Spring’ engraving. Svengsbir had long been deeply impressed by Hollar’s work. He studied it thoroughly while at the Arts Academy and even graduated on ‘Vaclav Hollar’s Work’. Svengsbir marvelled at the man’s ability to create engravings of everyday things, of still lives, of Prague vistas, and all this in a war-torn (17th) century, and who managed to remain very Bohemian even though he spent most of his life in England. According to Svengsbir, Hollar was one of the most significant graphic phenomena of all times.

Svengsbir would win the ‘Most beautiful Stamp’ category two more times; in 1966 for his St Wenceslas Crown stamp which was part of that other well-known annual series of Czechoslovakia: the Prague Castle series, and in 1968 for his Madonna of the Rosary stamp, from a series of issues promoting PRAGA 1968.

That Prague Castle series, especially, was one with which Svengsbir was closely associated. It had been introduced in 1965, and Svengsbir contributed stamps during the first two years. Then he became involved in the build up to PRAGA 1968, but from 1971 to 1981 he was the sole contributor to this series, which would eventually run until 1992. His 1981 stamp was his last one for this series, and fittingly it won him the ‘Engraver’s Best Interpretation of a Work of Art’ prize of the Mlada Fronta polls that year.

You will find Jiri Antonin Svengsbir's database HERE