Artwork and Models
This section of the collection chiefly comprises artists’ drawings and plaster models for coins and medals produced by the Royal Mint, along with the metal electrotypes made from the models as part of the die-making process. The earliest plaster models belong to the middle years of the 19th century, with pride of place occupied by William Wyon’s spectacular model for Great Exhibition medals of 1851. For the most part, however, they date from the 1920s and this is true also of the drawings, which like the plaster models relate to overseas coins and medals as well as those for the United Kingdom. In recent years all drawings submitted in Royal Mint design competitions are saved for the collection and this is accordingly a rapidly growing section of the collection.
Browse highlights of the artwork and plaster models collection below.
Edward Bawden was one of the most original artists of the 20th century. A watercolourist, illustrator and designer, his career spanned over 60 years, during which he produced advertising material for Shell, ceramics for the Orient Line and a prolific output and range of other work that sets him apart as a hugely influential artist. His work on an official level included being employed as a war artist during the Second World War and he also briefly tried his hand at being a coin designer.
The preparations to decimalise Britain’s currency began in the early 1960s, much earlier than people often appreciate, and Bawden was one of a number of artists who were approached to submit designs for the new coinage. The Royal Mint Museum collection contains a beautifully drawn series of designs that Bawden prepared for decimalisation, including a portrait of the Queen and designs for what was originally envisaged as a round 50p piece. A career as a coin designer never materialised but it is interesting, nonetheless, to see a completely different dimension to the work of such a well-known figure in British art.
When the sculptor David Wynne was preparing designs for the fifty pence of 1973 commemorating Britain's entry into the European Economic Community one of the early options was a ring of ten hands rather than the nine that subsequently appeared as the approved design. The Mint Museum has original artwork relating to some of the initial ideas and the drawing reproduced here shows an alternative inscription together with the larger number of hands.
In the time between the idea of the coin being proposed and its eventual issue, the expected number of members was reduced from ten to nine by the withdrawal of Norway and Mr Wynne therefore had to amend his design accordingly. He had used as models hands to which he could readily refer: his own, those of his wife and one of his sons, those of a craftsman who assisted in his studio and those of a girl who helped look after his children. One of the girl's hands was omitted and, being more delicate than the others, the one that remains is conspicuous. But in answer to the question that was often asked of the Mint since the coin's issue, the girl's hand does not represent any particular member of the Community.
In preparing portraits for the last coinage of George III the Italian artist Benedetto Pistrucci cut original models in jasper which, as a gem engraver, was his natural medium. Three of these exquisitely prepared cameo portraits of George III survive in the Royal Mint Museum and the one pictured here looks to have been the basis for the bull-head effigy used on the half-crown.
Trouble surrounded this portrait from an early stage, with Pistrucci claiming that Royal Mint engravers had spoiled his work in producing the coinage tools. Once the coins had been issued the effigy was widely criticised and before long a new half-crown was released with a revised portrait. The cameo, however, remains as a vivid testimony to the skill of a gifted but difficult artist who breathed new life into the British coinage during the early 19th century.
One of the oldest plaster models in the Royal Mint Museum dates back to the mid-19th century and is as spectacular as the medal to which it relates, the official prize medal for the Great Exhibition. Models begin to appear from this time because of a change that was taking place in technology whereby instead of directly engraving dies, artists could enlist the help of the reducing machine which allowed them to produce work at a relatively large size from which smaller copies at coin or medal size could be made.
On this obverse model is the same dramatic relief that collectors will know from the Great Exhibition medals, and as with his Young Head portrait, William Wyon captured an attractive and sensitive likeness of Queen Victoria. The overall design, with its dolphins and trident, is very much of its time and the model itself is symbolic of a technology that was beginning to find its feet in mid-19th century Britain.
The designers of coins and medals work in many different ways. Some carve directly into plaster, some model in clay or wax and these days three-dimensional computer design software offers another option. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries artists often built up a relief composition by modelling wax on slate, an exquisite example of which is pictured here.
The piece, which measures 55mm, is the work of the famous nineteenth-century engraver William Wyon and depicts the figure of Britannia with shield and trident standing in front of the prow of an ornately decorated ship. The purpose for which it was made has never quite been determined and it seems that the design did not make it through to being developed as a struck medal. Whatever lay behind the commission, however, it demonstrates clearly the manner in which William Wyon worked up medallic designs and also the remarkable level of detail he was able to capture by modelling in wax.
Latvia's fist coinage only had a very short lifespan, lasting just 14 years between the First World War and the Second World War before it was declared illegal by the occupying Russian, and later German, forces. The Royal Mint played an important part in the development of the new coinage, striking virtually all of the silver coins, beginning with an order for 10 million one lat pieces in 1924.
The five lats is particularly impressive, featuring a personification of liberty in the form of a Latvian maiden. The design was created by Rihard Zarinš, manager of the Latvian State Securities Printing House but it needed a little help and it was only through the skill of sculptor Percy Metcalfe that the artwork was transformed into the elegant portrait used on the coinage. The plaster model illustrated here is the work of Metcalfe, showing immediately why he was so highly regarded at the time as a numismatic artist and, indeed, his portrait was so popular that it has become something of a national icon in Latvia.
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Christopher Ironside prepared the reverse designs for all new denominations introduced during decimalisation.
Changes in the royal portrait occur but rarely on United Kingdom coins.
Wyon's enduring reputation rests largely on his coin and medal portraits of Queen Victoria.