Benedetto Pistrucci (1783–1855) is one of the most exceptional artists to have collaborated with the Royal Mint, equally famous for his works and for his fiery personality.
Some of his creations, such as the design of St George and the Dragon first introduced on the gold sovereigns of 1817 and the Waterloo Medal, are among the masterpieces of numismatic art in Britain but they were also the source of intense controversy between their author and his many opponents.
Pistrucci arrived in London in 1815, shortly after the Battle of Waterloo. He was already famous as an engraver of cameos for the most reputable clients in Europe and had many admirers in Britain. He had a great natural talent, a strong will, and a curiosity for experimenting with new techniques that would accompany him throughout his life, but he also suffered from a persecution complex and could be moody, unpredictable, immodest and intolerant.
Once in London he immediately showed the two faces of his character, on the one hand by winning the favour of an important connoisseur, William Richard Hamilton, and on the other by annoying a collector and expert of the calibre of Richard Payne Knight by claiming to be the maker of a cameo with the head of Flora (today in the British Museum) which Payne Knight thought to be antique and the finest in his possession.
Pistrucci seemed unstoppable on his path to success in Britain. Despite his lack of experience in making coins, the Master of the Mint, William Wellesley Pole, commissioned from him in 1816 a portrait of George III which was subsequently engraved by Thomas Wyon. Pistrucci produced a cameo in red jasper, a very unusual material as the model for a coin, and later complained that Wyon’s engraving was of a poor standard and did not translate on the metal the refinement of the cameo. Pole, who was the brother of the Duke of Wellington, must in any case have been very pleased with the work of Pistrucci given that the Royal Mint paid 100 guineas to the Italian for another cameo on the theme of St George and the Dragon. It was the first model for the design that eventually appeared on a number of British coins and which prompted Dominique Vivant Denon to describe the silver crown of 1818 as the most beautiful coin in Europe.
Following the death of Thomas Wyon in 1817, Pistrucci took over the functions of Chief Engraver of the Royal Mint, together with a salary of £500, although he could not be formally appointed to the position because he was a foreigner. Prestigious commissions, not only that for the new coinage, kept coming, and the Prince Regent sat for him for a cameo in onyx (today in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).
The sudden arrival and promotion of Pistrucci must have upset many of his new colleagues at the Royal Mint, but with the protection of Pole, Pistrucci was invulnerable. He decided to engrave personally the dies for the sovereign, and later proudly told Archibald Billing, who wrote a biography of him, that he had never engraved coins before but taught himself how to do it, all alone. This fits well with what we know of the personality of the artist, but also with his thirst for learning and his passion for experimentation and technical improvements. He even purchased a reducing machine for himself which represented a great advancement in the quality and speed of production of master tools.
The apex of Pistrucci’s career at the Royal Mint came in 1819 when he was given the task of designing a medal to celebrate the victory at Waterloo. The project had been discussed for some time and the respected sculptor John Flaxman RA had been charged with producing some models, which Pistrucci then refused to copy. He instead decided to make new models and promised to deliver the dies for the medal for the astounding fee of £3,500.
The Waterloo Medal could not be compared to any previous medal: it was much bigger and its iconography more complicated than had ever been seen before in the history of medallic art. But Pistrucci believed that it could be done and immediately began to work.