BIOGRAPHY: Joseph Lawrence Keen

“Accepting a position with a security company is like entering a monastery and surrendering one’s identity as the iron doors clang behind you.”

This quote from the English security engraver Joseph Lawrence (Joe) Keen (1919-2004) can be found in Gene Hessler’s book The International Engraver’s Line. It is a telling quote for, once again, when researching the stamp engravings of the British Commonwealth, we stumble across vast areas of nothingness. In fact, we are heavily indebted to aforementioned Gene Hessler for being able to have any information on Mr Keen at all, especially when it comes to his work on stamp engraving. Any other public information out there is usually limited to the mentioning of the odd banknote engraving.

The anonymity of the job didn’t bother Keen too much though. He felt that this anonymity allowed an engraver to develop their technique and to produce a volume of work which showcased their talent at its best. In fact he was more than a little surprised to find his name credited to the 1955 United Nations stamp he engraved. But then, The UN had the habit to demand to know who designed and engraved their stamps, and were quite often happy to release that information into the public domain.

Joe Keen, born in 1919 in Hendon, England, went to the Hornsey School of Art in London where he studied drawing. He was noted by staff at Waterlow & Sons and, in 1936, was offered a six months apprenticeship to develop his engraving skills. During this period, Keen’s talent became obvious and he was subsequently offered the possibility of further training in the company’s Ornamental Department. Keen was trained as a vignette engraver by stamp designer George Fairweather, and also received guidance from the famous engraver J. A. C. Harrison. One of the practice pieces he had to engrave was Alfred Jones’ copy of William Croome’s Great Eagle.

World War Two intervened in 1939 and Keen had to fulfil his military service. In 1946 he returned to Waterlow & Sons, when his career started for real. Keen’s first known issued stamp engraving is that of Colombia’s 1947 Red Cross issue. This was followed in 1948 by his first of many British Commonwealth engravings: the ‘Badge of the Islands’ design from the 1948 Turks and Caicos Islands set to mark the Centenary of Separation from the Bahamas. More Turks and Caicos Islands stamps followed, for in 1950 Keen engraved seven of the 13 values from the King George VI definitive set.

As Keen became more and more established as an important engraver, he became more and more dissatisfied with the (financial and working) conditions at Waterlow & Sons. In fact, he even resigned in 1951, but within a month the company almost begged him to come back. Keen was able to negotiate a much better deal, including more pay and the luxury to be allowed to work from home, which was almost unheard of.

A period of great activity followed during which Joe Keen engraved many values for definitive sets such as those for the Falkland Islands (1952, 1955 and 1960), the Falkland Islands Dependencies (1954) and British Honduras (1953). Outwith the British Commonwealth, he engraved stamps for Honduras (1953 airmail), Costa Rica (1957 airmail) and even the United Nations (1955 UNESCO stamps).

During this period, Keen’s work shifted ever more towards the engraving of banknotes. It was this work, though, which would lead to Keen leaving Waterlow & Sons. Their banknote department had been operating at a loss for many years and even large scale investment, such as new presses, did not stem the tide. The company saw itself eventually forced to close this division and dismiss their bank note employees. De La Rue took over the banknote business and Keen joined that company in 1961.

Although his work for De La Rue would have mainly to do with the banknote business, he did still engrave the odd stamp for them as well, such as for Honduras and Qatar (both 1961). His work for De la Rue would also include the engravings of two values from the first set of stamps issued by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) in 1966.

Keen retired in 1984 but accepted a consulting position at Harrison’s some three years later where he stayed until his second and final retirement in 1994. 

You will find Joseph Lawrence Keen's database HERE.