Today, Benedetto Pistrucci is probably best remembered for his neoclassical masterwork of Saint George fighting the dragon on the British gold sovereign. The design has been popular ever since it first appeared in 1817, and is still struck on sovereigns today. However, his second great coin design, created for Britain’s lowest value coin, the farthing, in 1821, has been largely forgotten today. This might be due to the fact that the design was only struck for five short years before it was unceremoniously dropped after the artist suffered a spectacular fall from grace.
The design is of a striking young woman, wearing a long flowing robe and the battle helmet of an ancient warrior. Armed with a trident and a shield emblazoned with the Union flag, she looks out to sea with a proud and focused gaze, as if scanning the horizon for signs of danger and ready to defend her land from invasion. Her name is Britannia, and she is the female personification of Britain.
Britannia was already an established figure on British coins when Pistrucci decided to give her a radical makeover. She first appeared on Roman coins during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. The unknown engraver depicted her in long flowing robes and carrying a spear with a large shield at her side. However, after the Romans left Britain, Britannia did not return to the coinage until 1672, when the Dutch artist John Roettiers emblazoned her shield with the Union Flag to symbolise the unity of the Kingdom. More than a century later, in 1797, the German engraver Conrad Heinrich Küchler incorporated a maritime theme into the design, replacing Britannia’s shield with a trident and placing her on an island surrounded by water to convey Britain’s supremacy of the seas.
Born in Rome, Pistrucci quickly acquired a reputation as the finest engraver of his age. Shortly after arriving in London in 1816, he was commissioned to design new coins of the realm. The Italian artist had a passion for classical art, and it was said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night”. In 1817 he crafted a depiction of Saint George and the dragon for the new gold sovereign and gave England’s patron saint the plumed helmet of an ancient Greek warrior. Four years later, he was inspired to give Britannia the same battle helmet on the humble farthing, which was Britain’s lowest value coin.
Pistrucci may have been inspired to make this radical change to Britannia’s appearance by a popular eighteenth-century painting of the Celtic warrior Queen Boudica by the artist John Opie, who anachronistically depicted her wearing this plumed headgear. It is also possible that he was inspired by artistic depictions of the Pallas, a Titan god in Greek mythology. Pallas appears as a robed female figure with a plumed helmet and shield on several medals, including the medal struck for the coronation of Queen Anne.
Britannia’s striking new appearance on coins arguably transformed her in the public consciousness from a remote, ethereal observer into the strong warrior Queen and protector of the realm. Pistrucci also depicted her on the reverse of his bronze Coronation Medal struck in 1821. This design shows the new King, George IV, crowned by the winged figure of victory, while the female personifications of the British realms, namely Britannia, Scotia and Hibernia, all swear allegiance to him.
Today, one only has to visit the Italian Mint museum in Rome, which holds the world’s largest archive of Pistrucci’s work, to see that the pairing of an ancient Greek battle helmet with the head of a beautiful young woman was a subject that fascinated him.
Another remarkable feature of Pistrucci’s 1821 farthing is the inclusion of a lion at Britannia’s feet. Only the head and front paws are visible, and position is, in heraldic terms, ‘couchant’, that is, lying down with the head raised. He appears to be watching the horizon with Britannia for signs of danger. The striking proximity of the majestic reclining lion to the seated woman is particularly effective and adds to Britannia’s mystique as the fearless protector and guardian of the British Isles.
In keeping with the maritime theme introduced by Küchler in 1797, Pistrucci retained the trident for his Britannia, but she now grasps it like a warrior, pointing it firmly outwards in a combat-ready stance. There was no room on the small farthing to depict her surrounded by water. Small waves appear under her feet to indicate that she is sitting on the shoreline and looking out to sea. Pistrucci also turned her to face the right for the first time, as if to recognise that any future threat to Britain would likely come from the East rather than the West. It would have felt like a pertinent observation, coming just six years after the Battle of Waterloo. Britannia would remain facing right on Britain’s coinage for the next 187 years, until 2008.
Sadly, Pistrucci did not have the opportunity to create a Britannia reverse for the larger copper coins, namely the penny and the halfpenny, which would have allowed him the opportunity to expand his design. No new copper coins were required until 1825, and by that time, Pistrucci was no longer employed as a coin engraver after suffering a spectacular fall from grace.
King George IV was unhappy with the way Pistrucci had depicted him on coins as an overweight Nero with short curly hair and crowned with a laurel wreath in the Roman Imperial tradition. This neo-classical portrait was at odds with the reputation he tried to cultivate as a fashionably modern and debonair ladies’ man. He requested that the Royal Mint change his portrait, and he supplied them with a flattering marble bust of himself by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey to use as a model.
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 his superiors at the Mint to hang it in his studio, stubbornly turned it to face the wall.
Pistrucci’s unwillingness to give the King what he wanted would quickly see him out of royal favour and replaced as a coin engraver by an artist who would. William Wyon dutifully supplied a new portrait of the King modelled on the Chantrey bust, which met with royal approval. The designs that Pistrucci had created for Britain’s coinage were replaced, and he would not live to see his work appear on coins again.
Wyon became the first English artist to depict Britannia on circulating coins. His depiction of Britannia is elegant and well proportioned, but when viewed alongside Pistrucci’s farthing, she arguably lacks the regal bearing and poise of that short-lived design, which was dropped from the farthing in 1826.
Noticeably absent from Wyon’s redesign is the lion that Pistrucci had placed at Britannia’s side and the olive branch she carried as a symbol of peace. But he did choose to retain the battle helmet that Pistrucci had given her. By doing so, he ensured that this would form part of Britannia’s distinctive identity to this day.
A right-facing Britannia continued to appear on British coins throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1968, the artist Christopher Ironside chose to reunite Britannia with the lion on the reverse of the new decimal Fifty Pence. Since 2015 she has appeared on the £2 coin, designed by Anthony Dufort. She still wears the battle helmet of an ancient warrior, just as she did for the first time on Pistrucci’s farthing in 1821.
Because Pistrucci’s iconic depiction of Britannia appeared for just five years on Britain’s lowest value coin, his contribution to creating such an enduring symbol of Britain has been largely overlooked today. Unlike his Saint George and the dragon, which continues to be struck on gold sovereigns to this day, Pistrucci’s second great coin masterwork has, at the time of writing, never appeared on coins again.