If there’s one name synonymous with the art of stamp engraving, it must be that of Czeslaw Slania (1921-2005). During his career, spanning over fifty years, his more than 1,000 engraved stamps have attracted at least as many superlatives.
And it was clear from an early age that Slania had a special talent. Although it has to be said that he had some trouble finding a proper outlet for it. Slania started out young by selling his drawings to fellow pupils at school so they could get good marks. He later got found out for having perfectly forged the headmaster’s signature. Even then it was generally thought Slania would become an important artist. But that was not before he could once again execute his forging techniques, in the Second World War, by copying identity cards and other documents for the Polish underground forces.
Settling down to a more mainstream art form after the war, Slania turned to engraving after having studied graphic art at the Cracow Academy of Fine Art. In 1950 he was employed by the Government Printing Works in Poland, and from March 1951 his designs and engravings started gracing the philatelic catalogues.
1956 was a tumultuous year in Polish politics and the threat of a repeat performance of the Hungarian Revolution in Poland made many Poles flee their country, among them Czeslaw Slania. He settled in Sweden where he would live for the rest of his life.
Within a couple of years of fleeing his country, Slania managed to obtain employment at the Swedish Stamp Printing Office, which heralded the start of his illustrious international career, engraving stamps for more than thirty countries. His reputation was such that he became the official Court Engraver not only of Sweden, but of Monaco as well. For many of the Scandinavian countries, in particular Denmark and Greenland, he was the sole engraver of their many recess-printed stamp for years on end.
For these countries, as well as for many others, he produced many wonderful portrait stamps, earning him the unofficial title of “Master of Portrait Engraving”. His portrait work may also be admired on the 1995 set issued in Great Britain, portraying Sir Rowland Hill and Guglielmo Marconi.
Even though his portrait work undoubtedly forms the highlight of his oeuvre, Slania was an experienced engraver of all subjects. Turning again to his work for Great Britain, we may admire his ships on the 1982 Maritime Heritage set and his 2002 pillar boxes stamps, his final work for Royal Mail.
When communism in Poland came to an end in the late 1980s, early 1990s, Slania was able to visit Poland again, and he started engraving stamps for his native country once more. Among his favourites is the 1999 stamp he engraved for the National Stamp Exhibition “Walbrzych ‘99”, depicting Ksiaz Castle. Another major work for Poland was the 1993 miniature sheet for “Polska ‘93”, depicting Lech’s Encounter with the White Eagle.
More and more, various postal authorities turned to Slania for their major issues. And more and more Slania himself became part of the stamp issuing programme. In 1991, he engraved an incredibly detailed booklet pane for Sweden, depicting the Coronation of King Gustav III. The booklet was issued to honour the 70th birthday of Slania, with a non-postal label included in the pane referring to this fact.
This was followed by an even more magnificent tour de force in the year 2000: the engraving of Ehrenstrahl’s famous painting “The Great Deeds of Swedish Kings”, part of a miniature sheet which had no other function but to mark the fact that it was Slania’s 1,000 stamp!
Slania remained highly active until his dying days, with his final work, the engraving of a United Nations set marking the 60th anniversary of that organisation being issued just a month before his death in 2005.
This article was first published in Stamp and Coin Mart of March 2012 and is reproduced with their kind permission.