British numismatic historian, Justin Robinson, takes us on a fascinating journey spanning 2000 years as he examines how the powerful symbol of Britannia changed and evolved over the centuries.
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.
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.
The iconic image of Saint George fighting the dragon on the British gold sovereign is arguably the most famous battle scene depicted in modern numismatic history. It was created by the Italian sculptor and engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1783-1855) for the first modern sovereign in 1817.
Pistrucci arrived in London in 1816 and quickly found himself embroiled in a minor scandal after he was introduced to Richard Payne Knight MP, a wealthy scholar, author and numismatist. Pistrucci described him in his unfinished autobiography as “a great connoisseur in gems, cameos, and intaglios, bronzes, statues, medals, and antique vases”.
Knight was eager to show the Italian artist his “cabinet full of precious things”, but the meeting did not go well. When the collector proudly showed the artist one of his most prized possessions, which he described as “the finest Greek cameo in existence”. Pistrucci replied that it was actually his own work and that he had created it just six years earlier!
Unwilling to believe that an unscrupulous art dealer had duped him, a furious Knight refused to believe Pistrucci until the artist happily prepared a superior version in just a few days to demonstrate his mastery of the craft. Despite the accusations of fraud hurled at him, Pistrucci had not intended to deceive. Before arriving in Britain, he had innocently sold his work through a business partner, who had, without his knowledge, fraudulently passed them off to collectors as ancient artworks.
In his eagerness to set the record straight, Pistrucci quickly attracted the attention of many wealthy admirers who came to examine his work for themselves. Lucrative work soon followed. One request came from Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, who ordered a cameo of King George III cut in red jasper in return for a fee of 50 guineas. It was to prove a fateful commission.
When Sir Joseph later showed his friend William Wellesley-Pole the finished cameo that Pistrucci produced, the Master of the Mint knew that he had found the right man to design Britain’s new coinage. He wrote to his superiors at the Treasury to advise them that he had employed, “Mr. Pistrucci, an artist of the greatest celebrity and whose works place him above all competition as a gem engraver, to make models for the dyes of the new coinage.”
Because Pistrucci was Italian, Wellesley Pole could not appoint him as the Mint’s Chief Engraver as only a British subject could hold the position. However, when the role fell vacant following the death of Thomas Wyon in 1817, Pistrucci assumed the responsibilities of Chief Engraver without the title. When Wellesley-Pole asked him to propose a suitably majestic reverse design for the new gold sovereign, the artist suggested a dramatic image of England’s patron Saint fighting the dragon in the Greek style.
He was already familiar with the design, having recently been introduced to Lord and Lady Spencer by his friend Joseph Banks. Lord Spencer was a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a British order of chivalry with Saint George as its patron saint. Pistrucci later recalled that;
“her ladyship … showed me a large model in wax of a St. George, done by Marchant, and said to me: ” My husband would like you to make a model in wax, of the same size and subject: but I should like it in the Greek style” as that was the style in which naked figures were done; and the mantle in this beautiful white, would have a superb effect.”
Pistrucci had been delighted to accept the commission and produced his model of Saint George and the dragon in the Greek style as requested. To capture the naked horseman’s muscle tone, legend has it that he invited an Italian waiter at Brunet’s Hotel in Leicester Square, where he was lodging to model for him.
In addition to appearing on paintings and statues, Saint George’s legendary encounter with the dragon had occasionally appeared on coins before. In the twelfth century, a crude depiction was used on a coin issued by Roger of Salerno, Regent of Antioch. In 1526, it appeared on the George Noble during Henry VIII’s reign, although production was not extensive, and there are few surviving examples. Later, the scene appeared again on two trial pieces, the Reddite and Petition Crowns created in 1663 by Thomas Simon, the engraver of seals at The Royal Mint.
However, there is little evidence that Pistrucci was inspired by medieval or modern interpretations of the famous confrontation between the saint and the dragon. His passion was for the classical, and it is said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night“.
There was no shortage of classical Greek art in nineteenth-century London to inspire his composition. He most likely drew inspiration from admiring the collection of marble sculptures originally from the Parthenon in Athens. They were saved from almost certain destruction by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He purchased the pieces from the Greek Government and turned down a generous offer from Napoleon to sell them to him. Instead, he donated them to the British Museum in London, where they continue to be admired by millions of visitors every year.
It is also possible that Pistrucci was inspired to create his composition by ancient coins, made centuries before the legend of Saint George arrived in Britain. In Ancient Greece, the King of Paeonia, Patraos (c335-315BC), depicted a horseman with a plumed helmet spearing his vanquished enemy as he falls under the hooves of his rearing horse. Even to a casual observer, the similarities in the composition of Pistrucci’s iconic masterwork created 2,100 years later are remarkable.
Six centuries later, the Roman Emperor Magnentius (c350-353 AD) also struck a coin with an uncanny resemblance to Pistrucci’s composition. Largely forgotten today, Magnentius seized power from his predecessor Constans in a coup and ruled over western Europe for three years. In that time, he struck coins in his own image, and one of them, named ‘Gloria Romanorum’ (Glory of Rome), depicts on its reverse a helmeted rider on horseback trampling a barbarian underfoot.
Both the Greek and Roman coins depict a rider on horseback wearing a helmet with striking plumage and a spear in his right hand. The horse is wearing a bridle and is rearing up on two legs before his adversary, who falls back whilst looking up at the victor towering over him. On the Magnentius coin, the similarities with Pistrucci’s Saint George are further accentuated by the appearance of a long flowing cloak which billows out behind the horseman and is fastened by a piece of fabric across his chest.
A further, startling similarity can be observed on the ground, depicted in both images as a horizontal line. On the Roman coin, a broken spear is also clearly visible sticking up out of the earth.
These uncanny similarities provide compelling evidence that Pistrucci saw at least one of these ancient coin designs. Many fine examples have survived to the present day, and so may have appeared in one of the private collections of classical antiquities that his wealthy customers and friends showed him. Perhaps he saw one in Payne Knight’s “cabinet full of precious things”. We also know that Sir Joseph Banks’ sister Sarah Sophia was an avid collector of coins and medals. Given the circles that Pistrucci was moving in, it does not require a giant leap of the imagination to suggest that he encountered an ancient coin with a similar composition that fired his creativity.
The similarities do not end with the design. Measuring 22 millimetres in diameter, the Roman coin of Magnentius is almost precisely the same size as the modern sovereign. This may have attracted the Italian sculptor’s eye as he considered the most effective way to compose an intricate design on such a small table.
Frustratingly, Pistrucci’s autobiography ends at the very moment he set to work on his model in the Greek style. Therefore, we are unlikely to ever know for certain which elements inspired him to create arguably the most famous coin design in numismatic history. However, the striking similarities between coins struck in classical antiquity, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon raise an intriguing possibility.
Did ancient coin designs inspire the brilliant nineteenth-century artist to create the neo-classical masterwork which still appears on sovereigns struck today?