Britannia: Icon on the Coin

Britannia: Icon on the Coin
Katharine Eustace (author), Kevin Clancy (editor)
Design: Tuch Design Ltd.
Hardback: ISBN-13 9781869917029
Publication date: 31 May 2016
Publisher: Royal Mint Museum, 144 pp.

This book is a welcome and much-needed reminder of the extent to which Britannia has occupied the national identity; so closely, and for such a length of time, can this symbolic representation be associated with its people. It is a lineage that extends back to Roman Britain, appearing as a seated female Britannia on the coinage of the emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. Two thousand years later, the image of Britannia has pervaded every aspect of society, with a commonality, and versatility, synonymous with our present day society and culture.

Sources for the original figuration of the seated female representation are considered in this wide-ranging treatment, and the representation of such a personification, on the reverse side of a silver tetradrachm of Lysimachus, King of Thrace, is convincing.

As an art-historian working in museums for many years and, more particularly, a member of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, Katharine Eustace is particularly qualified to consider this subject; and while coinage forms a strand running continuously throughout the book, the presence of the Britannia model is illustrated and brought to life in a variety of roles and fashions, some expected, others not so.

If any formal structure and standard of quality for a nation’s coinage were to be adhered to, with regard to a suitable design for the figure of Britannia, it would occur under the safe hands of the Royal Mint and its team of skilled engravers; embarked, as they were, on a copper coinage bearing this design in the reign of Charles II in 1672.

As the King’s Proclamation of that year made clear, this had been necessitated by the nation’s subjects having previously been ‘greatly defrauded’ by misdemeanours regarding its coinage, whether by hoarding of silver or forgery. Technical advances in manufacture and the employment of new designers created a standard in the striking of the farthing and halfpenny coinage which ensured a security in the design, including the seated figure of Britannia. In one form or another, that representation would not disappear from the nation’s coinage, as each reign and each artist brought their own interpretation to bear on its design.
The designers of commemorative medals did not need to adhere to the same standards as those of coinage; this being essentially private work catering to the prevailing political climate and likely clients for such work. The seated figure of Britannia on John Roettier’s medal for the Peace of Breda in 1667 had been modelled on the portrait of Frances Teresa Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond, who also represented the self-same
figure on the coinage.

A satirical representation of Britannia appears on a medal of Oliver Cromwell in 1655, which illustrates, on the reverse side, homage being paid to a seated representation of the good lady by a kneeling figure representing Cromwell, his head above her groin and his bare rump exposed.

Rococo fashion of the eighteenth century was ideally suited to the figurative possibilities that Britannia presented in statuary and other relief sculpture, and we are treated to many such illustrations. Notable amongst these are: a representation in stone above Lothbury Gate, Bank of England, of 1739, attributed to Sir Robert Taylor or Sir Henry Cheere; her resplendent seated figure amidst James Bubb’s marble memorial to the Earl of Chatham, 1778, at Guildhall, London; and a marble personification, Britannia receiving the riches of the East Indies, 1726, by Michael Rysbrack, in the Directors’ Court Room, Foreign and Colonial Office, Whitehall, London.

Designs for such work includes a 1799 etching by William Blake, after John Flaxman, ofA Colossal Statue, which was proposed to be erected on Greenwich Hill, London but never came to fruition. St Paul’s Cathedral is replete with figures of Britannia and amongst these is Flaxman’s marble memorial to Horatio, Viscount Nelson, 1807-08; and her representation on a John Bell’s marble group, again in Guildhall, in memoriam to Nelson’s counterpart, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.

As a national figure, her representation in every artistic genre was ubiquitous. Correctly judging the mood of the moment, Josiah Wedgwood capitalized on this in many ways; and none perhaps more symbolic than his Britannia Triumphant, a work of 1800 that was given pride of place in his London premises in St James’s.

The opportunity has been naturally taken to include many coinage designs featuring the possibilities of a Britannia representation. Most are seated but an exception is the distinctive standing figure on the Edward VII florin designed by G.W. De Saulles in 1902. The artist used as his model Susan Hicks Beach, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was, by default, Master of the Mint.

The book thus paints a very broad brush in its consideration of the iconography of Britannia, sometimes serious and at other times suitably light-hearted. Margaret Thatcher makes a wonderfully irreverent Britannia, which was, used on the cover of a publication in 1988, amusingly entitled Waiving the Rules: The Constitution under Thatcherism. The book is extremely well-illustrated and the various chapters are well supported by notes; though an index might have been of additional help.

The treatment of the subject thus works at various levels and succeeds in striking a serious as well as a light-hearted note; though this reflects no more than the role that Britannia has herself played in the life and times of the nation. In many ways, the timing of this book could not have been better, as we prepare to turn our backs on a political union struck with mainland Europe forty years ago. In severing that umbilical cord, the symbolism of Britannia and the degree to which she has entered the nation’s psyche, as admirably represented in this highly original treatment, assumes a greater poignancy.

Main image: Sir Robert Taylor or Sir Henry Cheere, Britannia, detail, 1739, stone, above Lothbury Gate, Bank of England, London (photo: courtesy of the Governor and Company of the Bank of England, © Crown 2016)

Aurora Corio