Amidst the long and illustrious history of British gold coinage, few coins have had such a troubled origin as the 1823 double sovereign. The year marked the first time that the double sovereign had been struck as a circulating coin, and it was destined to bear a one-off portrait of the monarch that would never appear on a coin again.
The Great Recoinage of silver and gold coins, which began in 1816, was still underway when King George III died on January 29 1820. His eldest son George IV (1762-1830), was fifty-seven years old when he became King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland, and Hanover. He had already served as Prince Regent for nine years due to his father’s incapacitating mental illness.
George III had attempted to instil in his son his own high moral values, frugal lifestyle and sense of duty but without success. The new King’s extravagant lifestyle, multiple mistresses and wasteful spending won him few friends amongst ministers and taxpayers, who condemned his behaviour as selfish, indulgent and irresponsible. However, he influenced the fashion of the time in what became known as the ‘Regency’ style and was nicknamed the ‘First Gentleman of England’ for his refined tastes.
George amassed vast debts from spending on horses, palaces, paintings, and numerous mistresses to achieve this cultured status. He left a legacy of many fine Regency buildings, including the Brighton Pavilion. However, his notorious vanity would ultimately result in the removal of one of the most exceptional engravers ever to work on the nation’s coinage.
The task of sculpting the new King’s official coin portrait fell to Benedetto Pistrucci, the brilliant engraver who the Master of the Mint, William Wellesley-Pole, had recruited to create the designs for the Great Recoinage in 1816. As an Italian, Pistrucci was not permitted to hold the official title of the mint’s Chief Engraver as the position was open only to British subjects. However, Wellesley-Pole gave his friend the salary and the workload and left the position vacant.
However, the new King was unhappy with the way Pistrucci depicted him on coins as an overweight, middle-aged Nero in the neo-classical style with short curly hair and crowned with a laurel wreath in the Roman Imperial tradition. The portrait was, arguably, at odds with the reputation he tried to cultivate as a fashionably modern and debonair man about town – a man, who as The Times famously put it, would always prefer “a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon”.
As soon as the first coins of his reign were in circulation, George IV requested that his coin portrait be changed. He proposed that the new portrait be modelled on a flattering marble bust of himself by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey.
Pistrucci was outraged, claiming that copying the work of another artist would violate his artistic integrity. When the King helpfully sent an equally flattering painting of himself by Sir Thomas Lawrence to inspire the artist, it is said that the volatile Italian, after being ordered by mint officials to hang it in his studio, stubbornly turned it to face the wall. Eventually, the King agreed to sit for Pistrucci, but it soon became clear that the artist would not pander to his vanity. As the official record of Mint business was to note;
“To copy the work of another artist appeared to Mr. Pistrucci a degrading act. He declined obeying the order, and the Master was under the necessity of procuring an inferior artist to engrave the Dies from the Model.”
Unwilling to fire his celebrity engraver, Wellesley-Pole attempted to diffuse the situation by persuading Pistrucci’s French assistant Jean Baptiste Merlen to engrave the King’s portrait for the new gold double sovereign in 1823. Merlen did as he was instructed and modelled his design on the Chnatrey bust to comply with the King’s wishes.
Merlen’s design marked a radical departure from traditional coin portraiture. It was the first time that a British monarch had appeared on a circulating coin without a laurel wreath or a crown, something which would have appealed to the King’s elegant style and reputation as a modern trendsetter.
Despite doing an admirable job, Merlen’s elegant ‘bare head’ portrait was destined to appear only on the 1823 double sovereign, making the coin particularly sought after today. His initials (JBM) appear under the truncated neck, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon masterwork appears on the reverse.
Unfortunately for Pistrucci, his friend and supporter Wellesley-Pole stepped down as Master later that year. His successor, Baron Thomas Wallace, was not prepared to tolerate the artist’s stubbornness in refusing to follow the King’s instructions. In a terse letter to his superiors, he reported that;
“The conduct of Mr Pistrucci in refusing to execute the order of the Master, in fulfilment of the King’s command, render him no longer of use to the Mint as Chief Engraver, whose peculiar duty it is to prepare the Head Dies for the Coin.”Baron Wallace, Master of the Mint
Pistrucci’s unwillingness to create a new portrait that flattered the King would see him replaced at the Royal Mint by an artist who would. With Pistrucci out of royal favour, the designs he had created for Britain’s coinage were replaced, and he would not live to see his work appear on coins again.
The task of creating a new portrait for the nation’s circulating coinage was given to the mint’s Second Engraver, William Wyon. He also modelled his design on the Chantrey bust, as the King requested. Wyon’s ‘bare head’ portrait was much acclaimed and appeared on the nation’s coinage from 1825 until the King’s death in 1830.
Just seven years after Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon had made a triumphant appearance on the first modern sovereign 1817, his masterwork was unceremoniously dropped from the sovereign. The unenviable task of creating a replacement design fell to Pistrucci’s French assistant. Merlen submitted a heraldic design incorporating the Ensigns Armorial (Royal Arms) of the United Kingdom on a crowned shield, with a smaller crowned shield in the centre featuring the Arms of Hanover. Today, his heraldic coin designs are recognised as some of the finest ever produced on British coins.
The rivalry in the royal mint engraving rooms only intensified when Wyon was made Chief Engraver in 1828. Pistrucci was appointed Chief Medallist so that he could complete his design for the long-awaited Waterloo Medal. It had been commissioned in 1819 and was to have been presented to the victorious powers. Knowing that he would be fired as soon as it was ready, Pistrucci did not complete the work until 1849.