The year is 1927. Karl Bickel Senior has been working on his peace monument Paxmal for a few years, he has recently married Berta Albrecht and on 17 July their only child, Karl Bickel Junior, is born. From the very start, the wee boy features in his father’s art. Though not engraved until 1931, we find the young child lying in his cradle; an engraving which would later be used for some more uncommon promotional material of the 1943 Pro Juventute set. Another engraving captures the boy as a one-year-old, and even one of the mosaics in the Paxmal portrays Karl Jr.
Karl Jr grew up in those Swiss mountains near Walenstadtberg spending most of his time on his own, the long daily trek to the village school being the ideal fertile ground for his dreams and fantasies. These qualities would later translate themselves in his paintings as a magic realism. To hone his latent artistic tendencies, Karl Jr started taking classes at the Zürich School of Applied Arts in 1945. He would have loved to have started straightaway in the Graphic Department, but had to give way to the more mature, more artistically developed students. While at school, he did get the opportunity to go on a study trip to Norway, accompanying a number of architects. This inspired him to want to become an architect too, but a bad accident left him with a damaged back, which put paid to these plans.
Back recuperating in his parental home in the mountains, his father suggested he take an apprenticeship with him, so he could learn the art of copper and steel engraving. Karl Jr took his father up on this and so took his first step towards his career as a stamp engraver. Having a father who was a highly appreciated member of the Swiss PTT’s elite team of engravers made it easy for Karl Jr to become involved with them as well. In 1947, Karl Jr was allowed to make his first trial engraving for the postal authorities.
The first issued stamps Karl Bickel Jr engraved were not postage stamps but savings stamps for the AHV (Alters- und Hinterlassenenversicherung), a benefit system for the elderly and bereaved, comparable to our National Insurance. The AHV was inaugurated in 1948 and a savings stamp system was instigated to pay for it. The various stamp designs, issued in 1948, were engraved by Karl. A second set issued in 1952 was also engraved by him.
Karl’s first postage stamp was issued in 1950. It was the 5c value from that year’s National Fête issue, marking the centenary of the first federal stamps of Switzerland. For a number of years this would be his only stamp, as Karl concentrated on travelling before settling down and starting a family. He kept himself sharp by engraving smaller works, to hone his skills and get used to engraving in small dimensions.
In 1955, the United Nations celebrated its tenth anniversary. It was the perfect excuse to issue a commemorative set that year, but it would also be the starting point for the first of many specially designed definitives for the various international organisations based in Switzerland. Karl Bickel’s career as a stamp engraver got kick-started properly when he got the chance to be one of the small team of engravers who would produce these sets. His first contribution was for that first definitive set, issued for the United Nations. He engraved the design of the winged angel, with the other design engraved by Albert Yersin. The winged angel design would be used twice more in slightly adapted form; in 1962 for a set marking the opening of the UN philatelic museum in Geneva, and in 1963 for an issue promoting the UNCSAT (UN Scientific and Technological Conference), again in Geneva.
The UN definitive set was followed in 1956 by new definitives for the International Labour Office. This time, Karl got to engrave both designs used for this set. The Universal Postal Union definitives were up next, in 1957, again engraved solely by Karl. The 1958 definitives for the International Bureau of Education were a joint effort by Karl Bickel and Karin Lieven, with Karl engraving the design of the Pestalozzi Monument in Yverdon.
Finally, Karl would engrave a set to mark the centenary of the World Meteorological Organization in 1973.
In 1958, when Switzerland had a stand at the World Expo in Brussels, the Swiss PTT thought it might be a good idea to produce promotional stamp labels which they could hand out at the expo. By that time, Karl Bickel had been engraving a good number of those sets for the international organisations. The PTT appreciated his subtle engraving technique, so they asked him to design and engrave a number of labels which would promote their work. Karl engraved four different designs, which were each printed in coils in three different colours (blue, brown and green), se-tenant with other, non-recess, labels. Each of the designs had a slogan in French celebrating the work of the Swiss philatelic bureau.
In 1980, the Swiss PTT would once again turn to Karl for their promotional work. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the PTT Stamp Printing Works, a special sheetlet was designed which included an unadopted design for a definitive stamp in the 1960s. The central design would be engraved by Karl, who had also engraved that particular die essay back then.
In 1984, Karl was once again involved in philatelic activities of the Swiss postal authorities, when he engraved one of the souvenir sheetlets promoting the NABA ZÜRI 84 philatelic exhibition.
KARL BICKEL SENIOR
That particular sheetlet was centred around the engraved portrait Karl Jr made of his father who had only recently passed away. It was yet another time the paths of the two engravers would cross. Not only did the father teach the son the art of stamp engraving, the two also worked together on a number of issues. Not all of these were officially credited to both at the time, but research has since shown how this collaboration took shape.
In 1956, Karl Jr engraved the portrait of Carlo Maderno for the Swiss Pro Juventute series and in 1964 he engraved the portrait of Peter Kaiser for a Liechtenstein stamp. Both stamps are officially only credited to Karl Bickel Sr but signed sheets show it was actually the son who engraved these stamps, a fact which has recently (2016) been confirmed by the widow of Karl Jr, Mrs Verena Bickel Courtin. As is well known, the 1965 Madonna stamp for Liechtenstein was engraved by both men, and credited to both on the actual sheet. Karl Sr engraved the Madonna, with Karl Jr responsible for the intricate background engraving.
In 1984 we have the afore-mentioned NABA sheetlet on which Karl Jr honoured his recently deceased father, and in 1986 he engraved the self-portrait of his father as it appears in his Paxmal monument, for a special cover produced to mark the exhibition held in honour of the birth centenary of Karl Sr.
Karl Bickel Jr’s work on Swiss definitives is concentrated mainly on the 1982 Zodiac & landscapes issue. For this set he engraved six of the fourteen values. His first two definitive stamps, though, were part of the 1973 Landscapes set and its high value Architecture counterpart. Karl engraved the 35c depicting houses in central Switzerland, issued in 1975, and the 3f value depicting a font in the St Maurice Church in Saanen, issued in 1979.
Having had the opportunity to meet the Bickel family in Switzerland and see the archive of all the die essays Karl Bickel Junior ever made, it is clear that, especially when it comes to definitives, there’s much more than meets the eye. The archive included a large number of dies engraved for various definitive sets, with designs which would eventually either not be used or which would be engraved by others. The collection is a perfect illustration of how much work goes into the production of a new definitive set.
While some die essays can not be positively attributed to certain sets, at least not without further archive material from the Swiss PTT becoming public, a good number of them actually are attributable. In Karl’s case, four major sets can be identified for which he engraved die essays.
The two most interesting of those are the work he did for the definitives of the early 1960s. In the initial stages of the design process for what was to become the 1960 Architectural Monuments set, the idea had been to combine a number of buildings per city per stamp, or even combine famous buildings with famous persons. A few of the essays with such ideas worked out can be found in the Bickel archive. But even when the final design theme was decided on, many die essays were made to be able to see what the series would look like. These die essays were mainly engraved by both Karl Bickel Jr and Karin Lieven. The majority of those resemble the eventual stamps (which, by the way, would all be engraved by Albert Yersin), but there are some which did not end up in the eventual series. Among Karl’s lot of essays were the engravings for Chur and St Gallen which were kept on a reserve list of designs which could possibly still be used.
Even more work was done for the 1961 Evangelists set. At the beginning, this was billed as a high value definitive set with themes as wide-ranging as humanitarianism, Christianity or democracy. Needless to say, this wide remit yielded a dazzling array of designs, which were all translated into engraved dies. Again, we find Karl Bickel taking on quite a few of these, mainly of the ‘Christianity’ designs. He also trialled a few of the evangelists designs, which would eventually be chosen for this set, though with the stamps themselves engraved by Heinrich Heusser.
Furthermore, Karl engraved a few essays for the 1970 numeral coil stamps and even as late as 1989, when he hadn’t had any stamp work of his issued for some four years, he engraved a die essay for the new Occupations definitives.
To be continued HERE!
You will find Karl Bickel Junior's database HERE.