A new era: Britain's new coins unveiled

May 2008, Volume 45 No. 5
A fist full of pennies...
So they’ve been unveiled: the designs that will grace the reverses of British coinage for years to come. In a bold move on the part of the Royal Mint the new coins no longer depict a complete image on each one (with the exception of the £1 coin) but instead make up a “jigsaw puzzle”, with the picture that emerges when all the coins are placed together being that of the Royal Shield of Arms.

The Good
All those who were worried that the new coins would ignore our history and heritage can breathe a sigh of relief. The Royal Shield of Arms is nothing if not “historical”—and has a serious numismatic pedigree (having first appeared on the coinage of Edward III and regularly throughout history since). Those who wanted fresh and bold new designs will also be happy—there is no doubt that this ground-breaking design is both innovative and contemporary. Indeed it is a brilliant concept, used before on stamps but never on British coinage and it has been very well executed. However, all is not as rosy as the Royal Mint might hope.

The Bad
The fact that the coins work as a set cannot be in doubt. The pack we received at the press launch was well put together and showed the coins as the designer, Matthew Dent, a graphic designer born in Wales but working in London intended, as a “jigsaw” making up the overall picture of the Royal Arms. But do these coins work as individual numismatic pieces? Is each design strong enough to stand alone, as coins must? Whilst they undoubtedly work as a whole, as parts they lack a certain something and although the design of each piece is well done as far as it goes, they aren’t ever going to be classics as individual coins. In years to come will we be looking back and seeing the bottom of the third lion of England and the top of the Irish harp as depicted on the new penny in the same way as we viewed the wren on the farthing, the thrift on the threepence or, dare I say it, Britannia? Will the backsides of the lions and the apparent fleur de lys (actually part of the Scottish “quarter” of the shield) as seen on the twenty pence coin be greeted with the same enthusiasm as the classic design of the old twenty pence unveiled in 1982? I somehow doubt it, and whilst the coins are brilliant when brought together they do lack a certain something when jangling around loose in the pocket! The designer said that he envisaged people sitting in pubs putting them together as a set and he saw children playing with them as they would a puzzle. That’s all very well, but how long will such novelty last? How long will it be before the concept is forgotten and the coins are simply viewed as bits of metal with no individual identity at all? And what of the £2 coin? Having only been introduced in 1997 it wasn’t part of this design process and now, with the coins fitting so nicely together as they do, it really does seem out of place.

And the ugly
Sadly, there are some more serious issues than whether or not the coins just look nice. The fact that there is no numeral anywhere in sight is an odd decision and rightly questioned. After all, if you’re a foreign visitor (or even an immigrant) and English is not your first language, how will you know what denomination you’re spending? And the lack of a Welsh symbol is already raising a few eyebrows—we know why it’s not there... there is no Welsh symbol on the Royal Shield of Arms. But it’s causing more than a little dissent, especially considering the coins were designed by a Welshman and minted in Wales. The question of why the Royal Shield was chosen knowing that Wales isn’t on there, will not simply go away. The inclusion of the 1p and 2p in the overall design also crushes the hopes of those who have been campaigning for the demise of our smaller denominations (after all, to withdraw them now would be to negate the new look) and of course the argument about Britannia no longer featuring will run and run.

Of course, the Royal Mint were never going to please everyone and there will always be as many ready to condemn their efforts as praise them. As for me, do I like the coins? Yes I do. They are clean, fresh and as a “set” aesthetically pleasing. The design concept, as I said, is a brilliant one. Are they classics of numismatics? On that score I’m not so sure.

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In This Issue

Ancients25
Classis Britannica
Examining the Roman origins of the British naval power
Feature Article27
New coinage revealed
Introducing the new coins of the realm and an interview with Matthew Dent, the designer
Out & about39
Sir Bertram Mackennal
Spotlight on Australia's foremost sculptor
Spotlight43
Bronze Halfpennies
The history of this humble coin
Background46
An historical survey of the money in Madagascar 1600-1900
The issues of a much colonised country
Profile50
Augustus Saint Gaudens
The man behind America's most beautiful coin
Tokens58
Sharing the cost
Cost cutting collaborations
Update65
"Emperor of Britain"
Discovered coins declared treasure trove
Banknote feature70
The Confederate States
Examining the notes of a short lived nation
Banknote Spotlight72
Colonial Fiji's scarce £20 notes
Attractive but rare notes from a former Crown Colony

Regulars

Editor's Comment2
Coin news & views10
Around the World20
New issues coin update22
Royal Mint Bulletin24
Market Scene31
Price Guide to shillings54
Coin Classroom61
The Sovereign64
Banknote News67
Banknote Market Scene68
New issues - banknotes74
Price Guide - £10 notes76
The Lexicon79
Letters to the Editor81
Dealers' lists83
Fair diary85
Auction diary86
Societies diary88
Semi-display adverts89
The Web Page91
Classified Advertising93
Advertisers' index95