This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria, a monarch who features prominently in the collection of the Royal Mint Museum with her coinage providing a story of beauty, quality and stability.
The portrait of Victoria, approved for the coinage in 1838, is undoubtedly a numismatic and artistic masterpiece. The uncluttered and well-balanced portrait in the neo-classical style is the work of William Wyon RA, Chief Engraver at the Royal Mint. Now familiarly known as the ‘Young Head’, its beautiful features flattered the Queen and she was a grandmother in her late 60s before it was allowed to disappear.
Wyon was, without question, one of the most talented engravers ever to work at the Mint and he was fortunate to be familiar with the Queen’s likeness. Victoria first sat for him as a young princess of just 13 and later he produced a medallic portrait for her 18th birthday, shortly before her accession.
When Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 the preparation of her official coronation medal was entrusted to Benedetto Pistrucci, the talented but temperamental Italian engraver who had been appointed Chief Medallist at the Royal Mint in 1828. At the same time the Chief Engraver’s position, had been given to William Wyon, and it is perhaps the creative tension between these two rivals which served to push each artist to produce designs of such exceptional quality.
It seemed that, time and again, the Queen brought out the best in Wyon and the early Victorian era is marked by many of his enduring numismatic masterpieces. Among these is a diademed portrait for a medal commemorating the Queen’s visit to the City of London in November 1837, a portrait perhaps better remembered now for its use on the famous Penny Black postage stamps of 1840.
One of the most celebrated of Wyon’s designs is the Una and the lion five-pound piece of 1839. This shows the ‘young head’ portrait on one side and, on the other, the Queen depicted as Una guiding the British lion. This piece represents Wyon’s desire to elevate numismatic art and, more generally, to encourage artistic awareness on the part of the public.
The same can be said for the equally beautiful Gothic Crown of 1847. Both were great favourites with collectors and remain, arguably, two of the most beautiful coins ever to be struck by the Royal Mint.
Over the years Wyon developed a friendly relationship with the Queen and also with the Prince Consort, who is known to have offered him advice on the design of the new godless florin of 1849. It was the first silver florin to be issued and was ‘godless’ since in the interests of simplicity the words DEI GRATIA (By the Grace of God) had been omitted from the inscription.
Just before his death in 1851, Wyon completed a private commission for the Great Exhibition medals, featuring conjoined portraits of the Queen and the Prince Consort which Victoria herself agreed were a good likeness. On hearing the news of Wyon’s death the Queen writes of it in her private diary: ‘I grieve to say that the excellent, talented man, Mr Wyon, who modelled the medals, is no longer alive. He was medallist to the Mint and will be a serious loss’. The plaster model still exists in the Royal Mint Museum and represents one of the earliest in our collection.
In 1879 Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm was invited to execute a new portrait of the Queen. From the beginning progress was slow and there were many adjustments and disagreements over elements of the portrait. Perhaps because of the success of Wyon’s Young Head, when it was finally introduced in 1887, at the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, the design was widely criticised.
The Jubilee coinage was quickly replaced, with some of the most respected artists of the day being invited to take part in a competition. Amongst their number was the sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, who submitted a realistic portrait of the Queen and a design for the reverse of the crown on the theme of a standing figure, presumably St Michael.
This was apparently too radical for the judging committee, who chose a more traditional design by Thomas Brock. Adopted in 1893, it was used until the end of the reign and is affectionately known as the ‘Old Head’.
Given the length of Victoria’s reign, from 1837 to 1901, her coinage was extensive. Some 2.3 billion coins were issued in the United Kingdom and in those parts of the Empire that then used British coins. Despite this there is an enduring character about the structure of the coinage, whose range of denominations and specifications varied very little from the beginning to the end of the reign.
Britain resisted the call to go bimetallic and make silver and gold a joint standard. On the contrary, we remained wedded to the gold standard, whose visual expression was the gold sovereign, that iconic coin of the British Empire and by the middle years of the Queen’s reign the chief coin of the world.
Despite pressure to adopt a decimal system, Britain also retained the historic £sd system, with twelve pennies to a shilling and twenty shillings to the pound. The florin, as one-tenth of a pound, had been a first step towards decimalisation and in the 1850s the Mint had gone as far as preparing pattern coins for a decimal system of coinage. But due in part to the opposition of William Gladstone, who had been Master of the Mint early in the Queen’s reign, decimalisation was not taken any further.
Notwithstanding the reluctance to change a monetary system that was considered to be stable and successful, there was still the opportunity for improvement. In 1860 bronze was introduced to replace the sticky, smelly copper used for pennies, halfpennies and farthings. Designs were executed by Leonard Wyon, the son of William Wyon, and feature a charming portrait with the Queen’s hair swept back into a chignon, hence the popular nickname ‘bun’ penny.
This change of material to a hard and durable bronze alloy added to the life span of Victorian coins and within living memory bun pennies could still be found in daily circulation, worn smooth by over 100 years of constant use. It was not, in fact, until decimalisation in 1971 that these pennies were finally withdrawn from circulation.