A new era: Britain's new coins unveiled
Volume 45, Number 5, May 2008
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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