Issue Number: 115
Kevin Clancy explores the RA’s historic links with the Royal Mint, including the new 2012 Olympic coins that form one of the displays in the Fine Rooms celebrating The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
For 250 years Royal Academicians have played a central role in creating the works of art we carry with us every day. Starting with Richard Yeo (1720-79) one of the founding members of the Academy, who was also Chief Engraver for the Royal Mint, the design of the nation’s coinage has been linked with the RA, making the Academy the perfect location for a display of related works to celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
One section of the exhibition ‘The Queen’s Artists’ features the three large precious metal coins designed by Sir Anthony Caro RA, Tom Phillips RA and Christopher Le Brun PRA to mark the London 2012 Olympic Games. Seen together, they reveal the flexibility with which coinage design can be approached.
Preparing the die for Sir Anthony Caro RA’s gold kilo coin. © Royal Mint Museum.
The Academy’s President has created an image of a flying Pegasus to represent the Olympic ideals of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ for the UK’s first 5oz gold coin, while Caro and Phillips have designed the UK’s first 1-kilo gold and silver coins respectively. Caro’s gold coin is the highest relief UK coin ever made and depicts images of individual endeavour in the Games, while Phillips’ silver coin features furling pennants encircled by the words: ‘Unite our dreams, to make the world a team of teams.’
Tom Phillips RA’s silver kilo coin. © Royal Mint Museum. The display also includes an important selection of sculptures, paintings and drawings prepared by RAs for the coinage and royal seals during the present Queen’s reign. These include sculptures by Gilbert Ledward for the first Great Seal of the current reign in 1953, as well as those by James Butler for the second Great Seal, commissioned in 2001. (The Great Seals are used for the sovereign’s approval of state documents, such as those concerning the appointment of bishops or peers.) The two sculptors represented The Queen in very different ways. Ledward used as many heraldic and symbolic devices as he could muster, while Butler focused on the person of the monarch, eschewing all but the most subtle references to a throne.
The extent to which artists have worked creatively within a received tradition is a recurring theme in the exhibition.
Christopher Le Brun PRA’s 5oz gold coin. © Royal Mint Museum. This can been seen in a series of portraits from the 1960s for the new decimal coins by Edward Bawden, Sir Charles Wheeler and Arnold Machin. While Wheeler had some limited involvement in modelling prospective coinage designs – during the brief reign of Edward VIII – he was by no means a practised hand. For all Bawden’s accomplished design skills, the sphere of numismatic art represented a departure for him. Machin had previously worked for Wedgwood and his portrait achieves a balance of dignity and accessibility that is found in the best of royal portraits. He went on to adapt his portrait for the nation’s postage stamps.
While the Great Seals may stand at the more esoteric end of the work included in the exhibition – they are rarely if ever encountered by most people – the coinage stands at the other extreme. It carries before it timeless archetypes and some have argued that coinage is no place for modern art. This show challenges that view and demonstrates that the works of art we handle daily are enlivened by the spirit of contemporary art and design.