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Designing For A New Reign

6 min read

As of December last year, it will have been possible to find a 50 pence piece bearing the effigy of King Charles III in your change.

Some 4.9 million coins, commemorating the death of Elizabeth II, entered circulation throughout the month. These were amongst the first examples of a change to royal imagery arising from the, as yet uncrowned, King’s accession. In May, an additional 50 pence will be issued, marking a key moment in British history.  How a representation of a new monarch is commissioned and created, by what process it is approved and who is involved in making it all happen is a little-known, but long-established, process.

Since the summer of 1922 it has become the task of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee to examine designs for new coins, medals, seals and decorations. It makes recommendations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as Master of the Mint, in relation to coinage designs, and to other government ministers in relation to official medals and seals, all of which ultimately have to be approved by the monarch. 

Despite its name the committee is an independent and impartial body, consisting of distinguished figures from the world of art, lettering, heraldry, numismatics and other related disciplines. 

A standing committee on the design of the nation’s coinage and official medals was the brainchild of Robert Johnson, the Deputy Master, effectively Chief Executive, of the Royal Mint. Its establishment was personally approved by King George V. As well as being a forum through which the design of the nation’s coins and medals could be improved, Johnson hoped it would encourage the creation of ‘a school of artists who will find it worth their while to specialise in the production of coins and medals’. Then as now, the challenge is how to balance the rich heritage of coin and medal design in Britain with modernity and innovation, as well as recognising the work of established artists and encouraging young ones.

I became the Chair of the Committee in March 2021 taking over from Lord Waldegrave. Current members include Professor Phil Baines, lettering specialist; Dr Shailendra Bhandare of the Ashmolean Museum;  Blondel Cluff, CEO West India Committee; Hughie O’Donoghue RA, painter; Professor Jane Ridley, historian; Lieutenant Colonel Mike Vernon, Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Department and David White, Garter Principal King of Arms.

The list of past members reads like a cultural history of Britain, including the architect Hugh Casson, the art historian Kenneth Clark, the poet John Betjeman, the sculptors Elisabeth Frink and Charles Sargeant Jagger, the stone carver and typographer Eric Gill, the naturalist Peter Scott and the writer Marina Warner. For almost 50 years the late Prince Philip was the committee’s president and he remained active and materially engaged in the design of coins and medals until his retirement in 1999.

We make recommendations on themes for new coins and artists. Subsequently members of the Royal Mint’s design team and others working on a freelance basis, submit their ideas in response to creative briefs. The final proposals which are sent for approval will have been considered and refined over several committee meetings. The design of all coins used by the British public for the last 100 years have been selected by the committee, from the strong heraldic motifs of the pre-war coins of George V, through to a greater diversity in the form of the wren on the farthing and a ship on the halfpenny during the reign of George VI, to the redefining of what modern money should look like at the time of decimalisation in 1971.

Coronation coins

Coins have become smaller and the changes in the themes reflect a recognition that they can be a means of celebrating the history and culture of modern Britain. From Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Stephen Hawking, Kew Gardens and the Royal Albert Hall to the Windrush Generation, they have all found their place on 50 pence pieces, two-pound coins and other denominations.

Coins have marked royal occasions from jubilees and wedding anniversaries to birthdays and christenings to one of the most significant events now, the accession of King Charles III. 

The coinage issued in the name of William I after 1066 would not have been regarded as commemorative in nature, but the appearance of a rudimentary image of the new king and his name on silver pennies marked the transition from one reign to another.  We are experiencing a like period of transition, with changed designs for postage stamps and banknotes, royal cyphers and coins. These are part of the iconography of the state as well as personal reflections of the new King’s design judgements.

The portrait by Martin Jennings of King Charles III, whilst traditional in composition, shows a warmth of expression.  Jennings, who is a highly regarded sculptor, was given the commission to prepare the coinage effigy of the King based on his reputation for achieving sensitive and realistic likenesses, and also for his prominent public sculptures of Sir John Betjeman at St Pancras Station and of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House.

The Coronation of the King on 6 May, the defining moment at the start of his reign, will be commemorated with a Coronation fifty pence piece. Designed by Natasha Jenkins, one of a number of young members of the Royal Mint’s design team, the coin’s architectural line drawing style, is a wonderful example of how coinage can embrace a modern treatment. Millions of the new 50 pence pieces will be issued into circulation.  

The portrait by Martin Jennings of King Charles III, whilst traditional in composition, shows a warmth of expression.

For the crown piece, which remains the same size as the pre-decimal five-shilling coin, heraldic painter Timothy Noad designed a beautiful arrangement of St Edward’s crown flanked on either side by two sceptres which form part of the Royal Regalia, and the range also includes an exquisite treatment of the Royal Arms for a one ounce coin by sculptor John Bergdahl.

The Advisory Committee’s role is to recommend designs but it is through the craftsmanship and technical skill of the Royal Mint that these designs are realised as objects of beauty in their own right. For 1,000 years this organisation has innovated and adapted to remain relevant. It rightly identifies itself as the original maker of United Kingdom coins and today, operating from its headquarters in South Wales, manufactures currency for domestic use and for countries throughout the world, it makes collector coins and sells rare and historic coins, it has a thriving international bullion business and offers a range of precious metal investments.

It is possible to visit the Royal Mint in person. The Royal Mint Experience offers a tour of the factory, permanent galleries exploring the history of the Mint and a temporary exhibition area. It is an award-winning tourist attraction and the very latest exhibition, Crowned: The Making of a Monarch, is themed around Coronations past and present.

It is a privilege to chair the committee and be part of this fascinating period in our history when questions about how the United Kingdom might best be represented are perhaps more a part of our national debate than ever before.

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