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.
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.
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.