Britannia and the Royal Mint (extract from Britannia: Icon on the Coin by Katharine Eustace)


Posted on Wednesday, October 02, 2019 by The Royal Mint Museum

Penny of Queen Victoria

Reverse of a penny of George IV, 1826 by William Wyon.
The Gothic Revival of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the dramatic stylistic change that most obviously in architecture loosened the grip of the Classical on the visual arts, had at first glance little or no impact on the overall design of the coinage. A contemporary commentator declared:

In 1825, when engaged by the directions of the then Master of the Mint, Mr (afterwards Lord) Wallace, in bringing out a complete set of the coins of George the Fourth, William Wyon designed a new Britannia, than which there is not a single figure more classical, simple, and beautiful on any Greek or Roman coin that I am acquainted with. She sits on a rock, looking to her left, armed as Minerva; drapery close, and sweetly arranged, arms unclothed, the right resting on the upper part of the shield, the left upholding the trident, the hand very gracefully turning inwards. In the exergue the rose, thistle and shamrock combined.

William Wellesley Pole, an elder brother of the Duke of Wellington, became in 1814 Master of the Mint. He was to set about a reform of the currency and its design. Pole found in Benedetto Pistrucci, an Italian gem engraver, a designer to fulfil his ambition for the coinage. Encouraged by W. R. Hamilton to come to London from Rome in 1815, Pistrucci was to design the new gold sovereign of George III.For the reverse he produced one of the finest designs in the history of British coinage, the St George and the dragon of 1817.

Sovereign of George III
Sovereign of George III, 1817 featuring St George and the dragon by Benedetto Pistrucci.

This certainly owed a debt to the cavalcade of horsemen in low relief on the Parthenon marbles, for which W. R. Hamilton, when Lord Elgin’s secretary, had been a most persuasive advocate.Pistrucci’s design for the reverse of the sovereign was adapted for the silver crown the following year. Apart from Britannia it was the first time a non-heraldic image had appeared on the coinage for 150 years. The first copper coins struck at the new Mint on Tower Hill in 1821 were farthings made from melted down halfpennies from the old Mint. Britannia now faced east on the coin, towards Europe, where before she had always faced west, towards the Americas.

Farthing of George III
Farthing of George III, 1822.

This may be tacit acceptance of the loss of her first empire, and the importance of Britain’s role in Europe in the first decades of the nineteenth century. She wears her newly-acquired helmet, but the ship has disappeared, while a lion’s head appears at her feet. The coin was not, however, a success, largely because the King disliked his portrait on the obverse, and Pistrucci refused to work from an approved image, the bust of George IV by Sir Francis Chantrey. Instead the work was given to William Wyon.

Richard Sainthill, An Olla Podrida or Scraps, Numismatic, Antiquarian and Literary
Plate from Richard Sainthill, An Olla Podrida or Scraps, Numismatic, Antiquarian and Literary, vol II, London 1853 pl. 23.

The internal politics of the Mint were complex, and the intensity of the rivalry between Pistrucci and Wyon within the institution was such that it may have affected any serious consideration of innovation in the lower denominations. Across three changes of succession from George III, GeorgeIV and William IV to Victoria, the detail on the reverse varies sometimes minutely, but the overall formula and choice of attributes remains much the same: a twitch of the drapery, a sandal strap, waves, a ship on the horizon, a laurel wreath, and sprigs of patriotic flowers in the exergue, which since the Union with Ireland in 1801 included a shamrock. From 1839 to 1860 the trident on Wyon’s reverse for the Victoria penny is variously ornamented, with the exception of the years 1853 to 1857 when it is plain. These details, far from mere tweaks for a numismatist, are essential in differentiating successive dies, while retaining the essence of Britannia for the people on the street. As one distinguished numismatist put it, the Britannia reverse designed by William Wyon for George IV, William IV and Victoria ‘reached its zenith in the perfect balance of its composition’.

Penny of Queen Victoria
Penny of Queen Victoria, 1895.

The Museum has a publishing programme and Britannia: Icon on the Coin is available for purchase, along with our other publications, from the Royal Mint website.

Click here to see our list of publications

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