3 January 2016

coins of the realm


Image result for 2 pound coinJust before Christmas the last pound coin in its present form was minted, 32 years after the first came off the production line.

Amid the rampant inflation of the Eighties, it had made perfect sense to scrap the old pound note, then worth a fraction of the value it had held when it superseded the gold sovereign in 1931.  The notes circulated so fast that some were worn out within weeks.  But the pound coin was ugly: disproportionately thick, with an unappealing colour and a bland design.

Image result for sovereign coinWhen one compared it with the slim sovereign, with the softness of its gold and the gorgeousness of its design - St George slaying the dragon, by the Italian sculptor Benedetto Pistrucci, first used on the late coinage of George III - one realised that a nation really does get the coinage it deserves.

Certainly during the 20th century the degeneration of coin design mirrored that of the economic power and self-confidence of Great Britain.

Image result for new pound coin
The new pound coin is dodecagonal, based on a sketch by David Pearce, a Walsall teenager whose work was 'refined' by two more experienced designers.  It is reminiscent of the brass threepenny bit, designed in 1936 for the aborted coinage of Edward VIII, to replace the impractically small silver threepence.

Image result for edward viii threepenny bit
Edward VIII Threepenny bit
Just 12 of those were minted and used for testing in slot-machines.  The whereabouts of six are known, and the last to come up at auction, in 2013, went for £30,000: so it is time to look on those old tins of odds and ends again.

Image result for old threepenny bit
George VI threepenny bit
From 1937 a similar coin was minted, in nickel-brass, with the effigy of George VI on its obverse.  The reverse was one of those rare occasions of the government using the coinage to make a joke: it featured a design of a thrift plant, reflecting the government's policy of urging more saving.   

This, too, had featured on the unissued Edward VIII coin, and was the work of Frances Madge Kitchener.  The George VI coin was more stylised, an authentic piece of late art deco style.

In the Sixties there were still in circulation silver coins from the reign of George V that had borrowed their designs from the coinage of Edward VII, and that exuded the grandeur of a lost England.

Image result for half crown edward vii
Edward VII half-crown (2/6)
I have never seen a more beautiful coin, and few more beautiful designs, than the half-crown of King Edward VII by George William de Saulles, the chief engraver to the Royal Mint of that era, whose design continued to be used until 1927.

Coins remained reasonably attractive throughout the years until 1971, and decimalisation.  This coincided with the period of the debauch of the currency by the Heath government - and the most rampant inflation of all.  

The minimalist designs by Christopher Ironside barely made an effort to pleased or charm, but reflected a country that had wiped history clean in numismatic terms, and was now on its uppers.

Image result for matthew dent coinsThese designs persisted until 2008, when a new coinage, designed by Matthew Dent, began to be minted.  These designs are more original and more pleasing - the two do not always go together - and they, too, seem to reflect the transience of modern coins.

The originality lies in the use Dent makes of the royal coat of arms, fashioned on a shield.  For each coin he uses a different segment - the 20p gets the top left-hand corner, for example, and the 50p the point at the bottom  of the shield.  The pleasure lies in the artistry of the heraldic devised on the shield, and the contrast between the sharp edges of the shield and the curvature of the coin that frames it. 

But there is almost an element of parody in the designs:  this segment from our long and glorious history, cut and pasted on to a nearly worthless coin that barely commands the attention of those who use it.

I doubt there will be another redesign of our coinage until we have a new monarch.  The latest design was better than its predecessor; let us hope even more trouble is taken over the next.  

Given his close interest in artistic matters, the prince of Wales can, perhaps, be relied upon to approve something in accordance with our standing as an old, fine, if tottering nation.

He is of an age to recall the excitement of jangling  couple of half-crowns in his pocket, and pulling them out to inspect the fine canvas they represented.  

Perhaps we can start by making our coins a little bigger, as used to be, so there is a little more to show off.

(From an article in the Telegraph by Simon Heffer)

Image result for half crownMy favourite coins when I was growing up were the George VI half-crown (I loved the shape of the shield) and the threeepenny bit (because of the many sides and the flowers). 
Image result for silver threepenny piece

Image result for old penny pieceHaving said that, I was also keen on the penny piece, especially as in those days it was enough to buy a tiny bar of chocolate.

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