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Cutting the obverse design into a block
        of silver
Cutting the obverse design into a block
of silver

The Making of the Great Seal

By James Butler

When I was invited with a small group of distinguished artists to submit designs for a new Great Seal of the Realm at the beginning of 2000, my first reaction was to refuse. I was working on a large figure for the Fleet Air Arm memorial and was hardly in the mood to work on a relief sculpture of Her Majesty, twelve inches in diameter. Having reflected on the offer, however, I decided to visit the Mint to have a look at how artists had approached designing Great Seals down the centuries. In the series of seals that I was shown dating back hundreds of years what struck me, and especially so in the earlier seals, was the power of the simple image of the monarch and how attention naturally focused on the individual.When I returned home and began working on the designs I wanted to capture something of this medieval simplicity and power. I worked on a number of swiftly drawn sketches, for which I was to be paid, and submitted them without any serious thought that I would be successful.

When at the beginning of April Graham Dyer, Secretary to the Royal Mint Advisory Committee on the Design of Coins, Medals, Seals and Decorations, phoned me to tell me that I had won the competition, my feelings were mixed. It was indeed a great honour to be chosen but I had little confidence in my ability to work on the small scale that would be required. My drawings had a rapid fluidity and now I had to translate them into solid form. The design brief for the Great Seal was very limited in subject matter. There were three options: the Queen seated, facing outwards; the Queen on horseback, facing to the left and finally the Royal Arms. The Advisory Committee preferred my designs of the Queen seated for the obverse and the Royal Arms for the reverse. I began modelling in plasticine on a twelve-inch diameter relief but I found this extremely irksome since I do not like the feel of plasticine and modelling on such a small scale was very inhibiting. Nevertheless, I persevered and submitted two models to the Mint for presentation to the Committee.

Great Seal Obverse

In the rich wood-panelled setting of Cutlers’ Hall in the City of London on 6 July the Advisory Committee deliberated over my unfinished models. While members gathered their thoughts I was in another room, waiting to be called in to confront this august body of a dozen or so men and women. As I walked into the room I was immediately reassured because I recognised one or two familiar faces and indeed it proved to be a very constructive meeting.

The Committee rightly felt that some of the spirit of my original drawings had been lost in the plasticine models. I quite agreed with them. One of my most recent sculptural commissions had been a ten-foot-tall statue of Daedalus with a fifteen-foot wing-span, and having worked at such a scale for many years I now found it difficult to translate my vigorous style to the confines of the low relief that was required in this instance. But at the same time I had come so far with this project that I did not want to give up now.

The Committee, to their credit, came to my rescue. Members still had faith in the drawings that I had originally submitted and they felt sure that I could create an excellent new Great Seal if only I could capture something of that spirit. ‘How large would you like to work?’ I was asked. ‘About this wide!’ I said, spreading my arms. ‘All right!’ I was told. ‘You can model both sides in clay at twenty-eight inches in diameter.’ I now had the freedom to work at a size with which I would feel more comfortable and I left Cutlers’ Hall that afternoon a good deal more relieved and with renewed enthusiasm.