How rare is your gold sovereign

Jody Clark

Jody Clark is the young designer responsible for the latest image of Britannia introduced on UK coins in 2014. Refined in Photoshop and completed using a CAD program, Clark’s Britannia is truly a product of the digital age.

The digital portrait

The fifth portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, by Jody Clark
The fifth portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, by Jody Clark

The same can be said of his portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth, introduced on UK coinage for 2015. Unlike his predecessors, who sketched the Queen during a special sitting, Jody Clark did not meet the monarch; he worked from photographs and created his portrait digitally.

Only 33 years old when he produced the portrait, Clark is the youngest artist to have portrayed Elizabeth II for the Royal Mint. After securing his degree in Illustration at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, he moved to the Arden Group where he worked in commercial packaging as a CAD/CAM programmer.

A committed illustrator

At the same time, Clark continued to practice his illustration skills for a variety of clients, with a wide variety of work including posters, flyers, CD covers, editorial illustration and corporate identity. This stood him in good stead when he joined the Royal Mint in September 2012.

Jody Clark is the first Royal Mint engraver for over 100 years to create the royal coinage portrait. As is usual with the Royal Mint, his designs were entered as part of a competition judged by the Advisory Committee, and he beat several outside candidates to secure the commission.

Honest and appealing

By Autumn 2015 Elizabeth II will have reigned even longer than Queen Victoria, and Clark had the difficult challenge of portraying an older woman favourably yet truthfully. “I wanted to make her look less stern,” he said, “and give her a slightly warmer expression. I hope she likes it.

Clark’s other designs for the Royal Mint include the commemorative piece presented to the delegates of the 2014 NATO conference held at Celtic Manor in Newport, South Wales, and the 2014 Ryder Cup Medal Masterpiece. His rendering of Britannia is a refreshingly different interpretation of an iconic figure, which has appeared on coins for more than 2,000 years.

Shapely Britannia

The Britannia is the Royal Mint’s flagship coin, launched in 1987. Clark’s design is the eleventh in the collection, and portrays a very feminine figure, counterbalanced by a line at her feet. Often depicted with strong maritime associations, Clark’s Britannia stands in front of a globe, representing a global outlook.

At the time, Clark felt his Britannia was the most prestigious job he’d undertaken for the Royal Mint, but this was soon surpassed by his work on the new portrait of the Queen. Clark’s design is the fifth of Elizabeth’s reign. The first was created by Mary Gillick, who famously showed the young Elizabeth with a laurel wreath instead of a crown.

Joining the greats

The second portrait, and the first to be used on decimal coinage, was the work of Arnold Machin. His rendition, which included a long bare neck, was described by the poet John Betjeman as “a little racy”. The third version, by Raphael Maklouf, appeared in 1985, and the fourth, created by Ian Rank-Broadley was introduced in 1998. As post-decimal coins, these three are in current circulation in the UK and will be joined by the Jody Clark portrayal.

Further information:

 

Paul Day

For the 2012 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gold Sovereign, the Royal Mint looked once again to break with the classic Pistrucci St. George and the Dragon design, and seek a new interpretation. This is only the fourth time that the iconic image has been redesigned, and the artist chosen for this rare honour was sculptor Paul Day.

Born in 1967, Paul Day has become known for sculptures that are lifelike yet often incorporate an unusual sense of perspective. British-born, he studied initially at the Colchester Institute before attending the Dartington College of Arts and subsequently gaining his Degree at the Cheltenham School of Arts.

Early recognition

Day was fortunate to start working almost immediately on leaving Cheltenham, supported by a grant from the Prince of Wales Trust. Since then his work has won several major prizes, and been awarded some significant commissions.

One of Day’s best-known works in the UK is the Battle of Britain Memorial on London’s Embankment. His design won the 2002 competition to select the artist for this important commission, which was finally completed and unveiled in 2005.

Figures that come alive

The Battle of Britain Memorial is an extraordinary work, where the low relief becomes three dimensional in places. As a result, the sculpture is notably dynamic and arresting – perhaps influencing the judges’ final choice of Paul Day for the Diamond Jubilee Sovereign?

Similarly acclaimed was Paul Day’s work on the friezes for the Memorial to the Queen Mother, situated on the Mall. The first frieze also has a wartime narrative, showing the then Queen Elizabeth and her husband King George VI meeting and raising morale amongst Londoners who were enduring the Blitz during the Second World War.

A poignant embrace

Day’s characteristic relief work, and his skill at capturing emotion, is also seen in The Meeting Place, a huge sculpture of an embracing couple standing on a bas-relief plinth, and sited on the concourse of the London Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. The couple are, allegedly, modelled on Day himself and his French wife; the artist has lived in France for several years.

A fresh look at St. George

With such an impressive portfolio, it was entirely appropriate that Day should be chosen as one of five artists invited to submit designs for the Diamond Jubilee Sovereign. His rendition was typically animated and absorbing. As the artist himself explained, “I have chosen to opt for a romantic version of the St George and the Dragon theme — a medieval knight of Arthurian legend, something quite traditional and true to our culture.”

“I have given the dragon a more threatening attitude and size,” Day continued, “so that it represents a real menace: its wings have a harp-like quality, in contrast to the realism of the knight and horse, while the lance divides the surface into two.”

A controversial interpretation

This modern interpretation of St George and the Dragon has divided opinion, with traditionalists rather less receptive. Other commentators have welcomed the design but expressed disappointment that it was not accompanied by a new portrait of Her Majesty for the obverse; the Mint chose to retain Ian Rank-Broadley’s design.

One aspect that all experts have agreed on, however, is that as it was commissioned for one year only, the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Gold Sovereign will rapidly gain in value.

Further information

Humphrey Paget

Humphrey Paget had the unique distinction of being the only artist in the 20th century to design the obverse (heads) side of UK coins for two different monarchs – initially for Edward VIII and subsequently for George VI. This is explained by the extremely short reign of Edward VIII, which lasted only 326 days. Succeeding to the throne on 20 January 1936 following the death of his father George V, he abdicated on 11th December in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. His coronation never took place.

An admired designer

Humphrey Paget had previously designed a medal for the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, featuring Edward when he was still Prince of Wales. This was liked by both Edward and the Deputy Master of the Mint, so when Edward became King, Paget was the obvious choice to design the new coins.

A break with tradition

There was a problem immediately. Since King Charles II replaced Oliver Cromwell, there had been a tradition in UK coin design that the head of the succeeding monarch should face in the opposite direction to that of the previous ruler. George V’s head had faced to the left, so Edward’s should have faced right. Edward, however, felt that wasn’t his best side, and insisted his head should face left to show the parting in his hair. Paget’s design was forced to break with tradition.

Extremely rare

The abdication meant that only a few Edward VII coins reached the trial minting stage, and none were ever officially struck as common UK currency. Their rarity makes even the trial strikings especially sought after by collectors, and consequently very valuable. The 1937 Edward VIII Proof Sovereign sold at auction for £516,000, and the holy grail of numismatists, the Edward VIII 1937 Proof Set, was sold in 2010 for $2.1 million. With Edward VIII’s abdication, Humphrey Paget was now tasked with designing the new obverse for the George VI coins, and time was tight. Despite completing it in less than a month, any concerns that he may have rushed the design were totally dispelled when the coins were struck.

A masterpiece of coin design

Paget’s George VI design has been described by experts as ‘the classic coinage head of the 20th century’. A handsome, unadorned and appealing portrait, it was also technically near perfect, a quality for which the Royal Mint must have been grateful, given the urgency involved in striking the new coins. Incidentally, George VI’s head also faced left, the reasoning being that Edward VIII’s should have faced right!

A single year’s Sovereign

Only one Sovereign was issued during George VI’s 16 year reign, for his coronation in 1937. Of course it featured Paget’s magnificent portrait, with the Pistrucci St George and the Dragon on the reverse. It was never circulated, and only issued as part of a four coin proof set, so it too is very valuable.

Prolific talent

Paget was a highly prolific designer of coins and medals, at his most productive post-World War II. He created seals and medals for many institutions, and coins for numerous countries, from Bolivia to New Zealand. One of his best-loved UK coin designs was, perhaps ironically, for a coin of low value – the image based on the Golden Hind sailing ship, which was used on the halfpenny coin from 1937 until decimalisation in 1971. His last major commission was a medallic portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1970. Humphrey Paget was also a well-regarded sculptor, perhaps not surprising for someone who had come from such an artistic family. His father had illustrated the original editions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, and his uncle had illustrated the Sherlock Holmes stories first printed in the Strand magazine. Paget married in 1942, was awarded the OBE in 1948 and died in Sussex in 1974.

Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal

Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1863, Edgar Bertram Mackennal never really liked his first name and preferred to be known as Bertram (although there’s no record his wife Agnes ever called him Bert). Mackennal’s relevance to Gold Sovereigns is his design of the head of King George V, used on all UK coins from 1911. Although George V acceded to the throne in 1910, the sovereigns produced that year still featured the head of his father Edward VII, making 1911 the first year of the King George V sovereign, which was minted in London, Mackennal’s home city of Melbourne, and in Perth, Sydney and Canada.

Early years

The route to Edgar Bertram Mackennal being chosen to design the King George V coins is an interesting one. Mackennal was a well-travelled man, in an age where the voyage from Australia to Europe required a commitment of several weeks. He first left Australia for England at the age of 19, having studied at the Melbourne School of Design and wanting to broaden his knowledge and experience, at London’s National Gallery and Royal Academy of Arts schools.

Avant-garde influences

Finding his worthy studies rather dull, Mackennal then enjoyed a sojourn in the lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Paris. A commission to sculpt the likeness of a British Army officer saw him return to England, where he married Agnes. An extended honeymoon took them to Italy and Paris; it also exhausted their savings and urgently needing some income, Mackennal was forced to exchange the exhilarating continent for the rather contrasting environment of the Coalport Potteries in Shropshire, where he was Head of Modelling and Design.

An important commission

Whilst there, Mackennal entered and won a competition to design the sculpted reliefs on the façade of the Australian Parliament building in Melbourne. This necessitated a voyage back to Australia to produce them and was followed by further commissions. So it was another four years before he could return to Europe; the actress Sarah Bernhardt urged him to go back to Paris, then regarded as the crucible for all the most exciting and original artistic inspiration.

Fame – or notoriety

It certainly seemed to work for Mackennal. He created his figure of Circe, which was exhibited first in Paris and then at the Royal Academy in London. Here it attracted even more attention, the result of Victorian prudery. It was not so much the shapely, naked figure of Circe herself, but the rather more explicit depictions around the pedestal that apparently required being concealed by blankets. This extra publicity did Mackennal no harm at all, leading to several more commissions and yet another voyage back to Australia, in 1901, to execute them.

An establishment figure

By the time Mackennal was once again in London, Queen Victoria had died and the Edwardian age had begun, with the brief reign of Edward VII. Mackennal was awarded several significant commissions, including the medals for the 1908 London Olympics. Still in his forties, he became an associate of the Royal Academy, and later a fellow. On the death of Edward VII, Mackennal designed the tomb of the late King for St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, and subsequently the obverse of the King George V coins, including the Gold Sovereign.

Arise, Sir Bertram!

Edgar Bertram Mackennal was made a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order in 1921, becoming Sir Bertram Mackennal and securing his place in history as the first Australian artist to be knighted. He continued sculpting throughout the 1920s, although by this stage some of his work was considered rather conservative. But by then surely Bertram had earned the right to settle down a little, after years of heady bohemianism in Paris, and thousands of miles travelled between Europe and the land of his birth. He died, suddenly, at his home in Devon in 1931.

George William de Saulles

While some of the individuals profiled on Gold Sovereign Expert were concerned solely with designing or engraving, George William de Saulles was a true all-rounder, who designed, modelled and engraved the majority of his coins and medals.

Hard-earned knowledge

He honed these skills during a varied period of training, apprenticeship and early commissions. After studying at the Birmingham School of Art, he apprenticed to a local die sinker who ensured William had a wide range of tasks. While some of the jobs were not particularly satisfying, the experience was to prove valuable in later years.

Taken on by the Mint

William next worked for a London die engraver, before returning to Birmingham at the age of 26 to work for the medallist Joseph Moore. Four years later he arrived at the Royal Mint, following the death of Leonard Charles Wyon. In 1893 De Saulles was gazetted as Engraver to the Mint, which effectively meant he did not hold a full-time post but was on a retainer. However, he did a considerable amount of work for the Royal Mint until his early death in 1903.

Royal commissions

For us, George William de Saulles most pertinent achievement was his work on the dies for the 1893 Gold Sovereign and associated coins, designed by Sir Thomas Brock. This was the veiled head image of Victoria. The last Great Seal of Victoria in 1899 was entirely William’s work, and he also designed and engraved the dies for the new King Edward VII coins in 1902. De Saulles was part way through working the Seal of Edward VII when he died the following year, after a short illness.

A great medallist

Records don’t show the cause of his illness, but perhaps it was simply the strain of so much work. He was renowned for his prodigious output, producing more than 30 medals and seals – quite remarkable, bearing in mind designing and engraving are both painstaking, time-consuming processes. His work ranges from the commercially inspired to the commemorative, from the British Trade Dollar to the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee medal, and for military campaigns such as the highly regarded Ashanti medal of 1900. And of course, he also worked on many coins. De Saulles designed the Britannia seen on the reverse of bronze UK coins from 1895, and many colonial coins for British East Africa, British Honduras and India.

Swiss origins

He was born George William de Saulles in 1862, in Aston Manor, Birmingham. The foreign sounding surname was the result of Swiss family origins, although two generations had already lived in Britain; his grandfather had been a Page in the Royal households of George IV and William IV, and his father was a glass merchant. Although he married in 1884, he had no children. Within his lifetime, William de Saulles was regarded as one of the greatest medallists and engravers, a reputation that surely would have been further enhanced had his life not ended so early.

Sir Thomas Brock

Millions of people around the world have seen the work of Sir Thomas Brock and probably not been aware of it. He designed the huge Imperial Memorial to Queen Victoria, which has stood in front of Buckingham Palace since 1911, featured in countless tourist photographs, holiday brochures and news clips.

Many large sculptures

This Worcester-born sculptor was responsible for many notable memorials, statues and sculptures, often on an epic scale. Like the Imperial Memorial, his statue of Edward the Black Prince in Leeds, the Titanic Memorial in Belfast and the Queen Victoria statue in Birmingham are all significantly larger than life and redolent of the confidence of the Victorian and early Edwardian age.

Replacing an unloved image

Brock’s importance for numismatists is his ‘veiled head’ of Queen Victoria, introduced in 1893. His design was chosen from a competition organised by the Royal Mint in 1891, for a new image to replace the widely disliked Golden Jubilee image created by Sir Edgar Boehm. Six other artists competed, but it was Brock’s design which most appealed to the judging committee. It may have helped that Brock’s Diploma work at the Royal Academy in 1891 was a bust of his close friend Lord Leighton, who was also a leading member of the Mint’s committee.

Dignified and majestic

Nevertheless, Brock’s design almost certainly won on merit. After the faintly comic appearance of Boehm’s Victoria wearing what looked like a tiny hat, Brock’s “dignified and distinctive” design must have come as a huge relief; it was far better suited to a Queen perpetually in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Brock’s image shows her wearing her widow’s veil, which partially obscures a modest tiara, and also the Star of the Garter. Close examination of the coins bearing his design shows Thomas Brock’s initials engraved very small at the base of the Queen’s neck. The Gold Sovereign, and the silver coins, were minted from 1893, with the design introduced for lower value coins two years later.

Widely used

Brock’s Victoria also appeared on a number of commemorative medals, including the Royal Victorian Medal of 1896 and the Diamond Jubilee Commemorative Medal released the following year. The image was the last of Victoria to be used on UK coins until her death in 1901.

Finishing his tutor’s work

Thomas Brock attended the Worcester School of Design before being apprenticed as a modeller at the famous Worcester Royal Porcelain works. He became a pupil of the sculptor John Foley in 1886; when Foley died in 1874 Brock took over many of his commissions, the best known being the statue of Prince Albert, for the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens.

Last tribute to a friend

By then Brock had entered the Royal Academy School, becoming an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1883 and a Royal Academician in 1891, allowing him to add the letters RA after his name. It was during this period that he became friends with Lord Leighton, who occasionally used Brock’s studio near Regents Park. So it was no great surprise that Brock’s Royal Academy Diploma work was a bust of his friend, or that Brock was chosen to sculpt the monument to Leighton following his death in 1896, finally erected in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1903.

An instant knighthood

The latter part of Brock’s career from 1901 was dominated by his work on the vast, 82 foot high Victoria Memorial, at the head of The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. Hugely complex and demanding, it apparently so impressed the current monarch King George V at its unveiling, that he knighted Thomas Brock on the spot. Sir Thomas Brock died in London in August 1922.

Timothy Noad

While many of the Royal Mint’s coin designers have been sculptors, Timothy Noad has made his name in another art discipline: calligraphy. Producing heraldic commissions as a Herald Painter at the College of Arms and working in a different medium, he’s brought a fresh approach to the Mint’s coin design. This is reflected in his designs for the Gold Sovereign issued for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and for the more recent £1 coins. Timothy Noad studied at the Reigate School of Art and Design, at Birkbeck College (University of London) and the Courtauld Institute of Art. He has worked for the Royal Household and several major London institutions such as the City Livery companies – and, of course, the Royal Mint.

The Golden Jubilee Sovereign

His first Gold Sovereign design was for 2002 Queen’s Golden Jubilee year issue, and featured a more modern, slightly ‘cleaner’ interpretation of the shield design last used for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, showing the Royal Arms surrounded by a wreath of laurel.

A new St. George

For the 2005 Gold Sovereign, Timothy Noad gave the classic image of St. George and the Dragon a much more contemporary look. Strikingly different from Bernadetto Pistrucci’s well-known and much-used representation, Noad’s St George appears more animated and dynamic, ready to swipe the dragon with a mighty backhanded stroke! These designs also appeared on the Half Sovereign, Double Sovereign and Five Pound coins, which the obverse showing Ian Rank-Broadley’s portrait of the Queen.

Inspired by national symbols

In 2004 Noad had produced a set of designs for the Royal Mint depicting national symbols: a crowned lion for England, a unicorn for Scotland, a dragon for Wales and a hart (stag) for Northern Ireland. Probably intended for use on the next issue of £1 coins, they were passed over in favour of a series of images of British bridges, designed by Edwin Ellis. Nevertheless, the Mint thought sufficiently well of them to produce them as pattern pieces for sale to collectors.

The 2013 and 2014 £1 coins

Clearly the concept of using national symbols stayed with Timothy Noad when he was commissioned to mark the 30th anniversary of the introduction of £1 coins in the UK (which replaced the previous £1 note). This time his images were based on the floral emblems of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and were introduced over a period of two years starting in 2013. Among his more recent works, Timothy Noad created an elaborate piece of calligraphy for the Queen’s Consent document, in 2011. This was required to show that the Queen gave consent for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Timothy Noad is also a Scribe to the Crown Office at the House of Lords, a Fellow of the Society of Scribes and a Fellow of the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society. He’s published a number of books on calligraphy and regularly gives lectures and hosts workshops. External link: Timothy Noad’s web site.

Bernard Sindall

Born in 1925, Bernard Sindall designed several coins with many attractive designs, but one in particular was most significant for the Royal Mint.

500 years of Sovereigns

In 1989 the Mint issued a special Gold Sovereign marking the 500th anniversary of the first Gold Sovereign, produced in 1489 for Henry VII. The anniversary designs were only ever used for this particular year, and equally uniquely, they were both created by one person – Bernard Sindall. For his inspiration, Sindall looked to the first sovereign design of 1489, keeping the overall look while adapting it to current demands. So on the obverse, it is Queen Elizabeth II who is seated on the throne, and holding staffs of office – the King’s Sceptre and the Rod of Equity and Mercy. On the reverse, in a departure from the traditional St George and the Dragon design of Bernadetto Pistrucci, Sindall showed the royal crown and shield, set in the centre of a double rose, which reflected the Tudor origins of the original Gold Sovereign. There is one other unique aspect of the 500th Anniversary Gold Sovereign: it’s the first imperial sovereign ever to have the actual denomination stamped on the coin.

Highly sought after

As well as the Gold Sovereign, the Sindall designs also appeared on the Half Sovereign, Two Pound and Five Pound coins. Although the Royal Mint didn’t quite reach their sales target for the 500th Anniversary Gold Sovereign during its year of issue, the coin is now highly sought after. It was issued in dark red or maroon boxes with a Certificate of Authenticity. Those coins still accompanied by their certificate are worth considerably more to collectors.

Inspired by the Italian masters

Like many other engravers, Bernard Sindall was first and foremost a sculptor, known particularly for his slightly abstract yet notably characterful figures. Sindall studied at the Brighton College of Art, and later as a recipient of the Prix de Rome, enjoyed two years in Italy absorbing the work of the great masters. Whilst in Rome, he exhibited at the Palazzo Venezia – one of his many exhibitions around the world and at the Royal Academy. Sindall was keen to share the knowledge and influences he’d acquired in Italy, and went on to teach at the City & Guilds of London Institute, inspiring contemporary sculptors such as the late Roy Noakes.

Coins for other countries

His skill with depicting figures and animals was reflected in his designs for other coins, created for several countries around the world. Issued back in 1955, the elephants and giraffes he portrayed on the penny and halfpenny coins minted for Rhodesia and Nyasaland were well loved. He also designed a set of collector coins for the World Wildlife Fund. In a departure from birds and animals, Sindall produced designs featuring local views of Jersey, for the Channel Island’s post-decimalisation and Silver Jubilee coins. Bernard Sindall died in 1998. He may not have been the most prolific designer for the Royal Mint, but his 1989 Gold Sovereign remains possibly the most important of all recently minted Sovereigns.

Jean Baptiste Merlen

It’s probably true to say that Jean Baptiste Merlen was one of the supporting actors in the cast of the Royal Mint’s designers and engravers. But to be fair to Jean, he did work there during the period when two of the Mint’s greatest talents, William Wyon and Bernadetto Pistrucci, were at their most dominant.

Escape from France

Jean Merlen’s origins are somewhat hazy. Some accounts suggest he was born in Belgium, but the majority say he was born in France in 1769, of Flemish parents. He worked as a medallist in the Paris Mint, where his output including the 1804 medal celebrating the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor. Following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, Merlen’s job (and in fact the future of the Paris Mint itself) looked uncertain, so he emigrated to Britain and looked for work in London.

Working at the Mint

Once again exact details of his employment at the time are sketchy, but it’s thought he started at the Royal Mint in 1820, on the recommendation of Pistrucci, whom he may well have met in France. Jean Merlen became Assistant Engraver under the Chief Engraver, William Wyon; Pistrucci was Chief Medallist. As an alien, technically Merlen wasn’t eligible for a full-time post at the Royal Mint, but this problem was bypassed by hiring him on a temporary basis, at four guineas a week.

His finest hour?

The majority of Merlen’s designs for the Royal Mint were reverses. His sole obverse (or head) was that of King George IV, used on the Crown coin from 1821 to 1822, and the rare 1823 Two Pound coin. Pistrucci’s famous George and the Dragon was on the other side. The reason for Merlen providing the obverse design illustrates Pistrucci’s confrontational character. Pistrucci’s own design was disliked by the King, who preferred the portrait by Sir Francis Chantrey. Pistrucci however declared that he would not create a design based on the work of another artist, so it Merlen who provided the interpretation instead. It has to be said, the result is rather elegant.

Widely used designs

Among Jean Merlen’s many designs for reverses are the crowned shield surrounded by a wreath, used for the King William IV half-sovereign produced from 1834 till the King’s death in 1837. This was subsequently used for the second Gold Sovereign of Queen Victoria’s reign, and for other coins including the Silver Crown and Half Crown. He also produced designs for lower value coins, including the shilling, sixpence and silver threepence, and the design used on the Maundy coins (handed out by the reigning monarch on the Thursday before Good Friday) from 1822 to 1887.

A return to Europe

Although Merlen’s designs continued to be used during the Victorian period, his employment effectively ended with the Queen’s accession to the throne. Perhaps the prospect of a large workload of designing and engraving the new Queen’s coins was too much – after all, by then Jean Merlen was 75. Details of his demise are as vague as those of his birth, but it’s generally believed he returned to either Paris or Brussels, where he died in 1850.

Joseph Boehm

Joseph Boehm’s most significant contribution to British coinage was, sadly, not universally appreciated. He designed the portrait of Queen Victoria for her 1887 Golden Jubilee, which appeared on several coins including the Gold Sovereign. The result was widely criticised, but perhaps that criticism was a little unfair.

An unflattering image?

The disapproval centred largely on the crown which Queen Victoria was wearing. Perched on top of a widow’s veil (she was perpetually in mourning for Prince Albert following his death in 1861) and her full head of hair, the crown looked more like a rather silly hat, or worse, a cake decoration. Yet it was Victoria herself who insisted on wearing it for the sittings with Joseph Boehm; she apparently found the full-size crown too heavy and uncomfortable.

Dedicated to realism

The portrait was so disliked that the Royal Mint replaced it as early as 1893. Yet Joseph Boehm was only portraying reality (as was Leonard Charles Wyon, who actually engraved the image). To Boehm, accuracy was important – he was a meticulous and gifted sculptor. He produced many busts of the Victorian era’s most notable figures, and also a series of famous hands, such as those belonging to the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli and Prince Albert. They are nearly all lifelike and convincing.

A royal favourite

Whatever the public and some of his fellow artists may have said about the 1887 Jubilee head, the Queen herself was still supportive of Boehm. In 1889, he was made a Baronet, an honour which entitles the holder to prefix his name with Sir and suffix it with Bart (the traditional abbreviation of Baronet). So Joseph Edgar Boehm became Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, of the parish of St Mary Abbots, Kensington, London. He’d already been made a member of the Royal Academy in 1882.

Cosmopolitan studies

This was quite an achievement for someone who wasn’t British by birth. Boehm was born in Vienna in July 1834, and studied sculpture in London, Paris, Vienna and Italy. He won the Austrian Imperial Prize for Sculpture in 1856. It established him as a major international artist, a reputation he cemented with works he produced for the International Exhibition in London, in 1862.

Sculptor to the Queen

Having already spent some time in England, he became a British subject in 1865. With many patrons among the British aristocracy, Boehm was soon in demand to produce sculptures and monuments of royalty, and by the end of his career had been granted 40 royal commissions. He was appointed Sculptor in Ordinary to the Queen in 1881 (despite the title, this was far from an ordinary honour). The large marble monument to Queen Victoria in Windsor Castle is his work, as is the 1879 statue of Prince Albert on horseback in Bombay (now Mumbai) India, the monument of the Duke of Kent in St. George’s Chapel, also in Windsor Castle, and the statues of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the Temple Bar monument in Fleet Street, London. Although his involvement with portraiture for coins was minimal, Boehm did produce a number of designs for medals, which showed a more conventional and better-liked image of Queen Victoria.

A royal liaison – fact or fiction?

Joseph Boehm continued his close associations with the British royal family until his death. In fact, if some scurrilous rumours are to be believed, these associations might have been responsible for his death. Boehm gave lessons in art at his home to a number of notable pupils, including Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. She was so smitten with him that she had a studio built in the grounds of Kensington Palace, where she could enjoy his undivided attention. Whatever those tutorial sessions comprised, the fact remains that they were together when Joseph Boehm died in 1890 of a burst blood vessel – alleged by some to be the result of over-energetic lovemaking.

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