For a man so obviously of Italian extraction, it may seem surprising that Benedetto Pistrucci is irrevocably associated with the Patron Saint of England, through his Gold Sovereign engraving of St. George and the Dragon. Yet Pistrucci lived the majority of his life in England and, indeed, died there. Pistrucci’s much lauded engraving of George and the Dragon for the 1817 Gold Sovereign captures not only his embracing of English culture, but also his cosmopolitan influences.
A fresh depiction
Pistrucci’s St. George does not wear armour but is dressed as an ancient Greek nobleman. This is appropriate, since St. George is a Greco-Roman legend, the lancer on horseback signifying heroism and imperial power. The model for Pistrucci’s St. George was, rather more humbly, an Italian waiter in a London hotel. Pistrucci’s interest in the legend of St. George himself was kindled by a wax model of the Saint, shown to him by Lady Spencer, who was introduced to Pistrucci by the splendidly named William Wellesley Pole, then Master of the Mint in London. Pistrucci eschewed the traditional heraldic depictions of St. George in favour of the more romantic classical Greek style, possibly finding further inspiration in the Elgin marbles, which had arrived in England in the early 1800s.
The perfectionist at work
Pistrucci’s reputation as a perfectionist brought him to the attention of the Pope and Napoleon the First. In fact, while working in Paris Pistrucci carved a cameo of Napoleon, which he was able to compare surreptitiously with the great leader himself. Soon after arriving in London in 1815, Pistrucci began work for the Royal Mint, where his skills temporarily deserted him as he found himself unable to engrave portraits of George III directly into steel. When the Mint’s own engravers took over the job, Pistrucci rejected their work and forced himself to master the technique. By the time he produced the St George design for the Gold Sovereign in 1817, it was clear he had succeeded.
Pistrucci’s St. George is still hailed today as a masterpiece of the engraver’s art, one of the best known and best loved of all numismatic designs. Humphrey Sutherland, lecturer in numismatics at the University of Oxford, described it as “one of the noblest innovations in English coin design.” It is truly an enduring work. Pistrucci cut the dies for St. George in 1817, and it also appeared on the new Crown coin in 1818. Apart from a brief interlude when it was replaced by a heraldic design in 1825, his St. George has appeared on the Sovereigns minted for every monarch since Queen Victoria. It was also used on a Crown specially minted for that celebration of all things English – and British – the Festival of Britain, in 1951. Pistrucci was paid 100 Guineas for his famous St. George, but his ultimate prize eluded him. He was never officially the Chief Engraver at the Royal Mint, because he was still considered a foreigner – a poor reward, perhaps, for someone whose engraving of the English Patron Saint has delighted both patriots and coin collectors for nearly two centuries.