Volume 48, Number 4, April 2011
Designed To Matter THE Royal Mint has announced that there will indeed be a “Royal Wedding” £5 crown to celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Kate (sorry Catherine) Middleton on April 29. It was perhaps inevitable that such a crown would be minted, after all the Prince’s parents had their own crown struck in 1981 and both the silver and golden weddings of his grand-parents have been celebrated numismatically too. What was also inevitable was the amount of criticism levelled at both the decision to strike a coin and the design. Whether it is right to strike such a coin in the first place is very much a matter of personal preference and there is little point in joining that debate here, however the debate about the design is very much within the remit of this magazine. Personally I like the simple design of the happy couple facing each other, apart that is, from one thing, Miss Middleton’s teeth! I have never yet seen a coin that properly predicts somebody smiling with their teeth. I always think it makes them look something like a vampire about to go in for a bite. You will note that no obverse bust yet has a toothy grin and very few of the commemoratives ever feature anything other than a closed mouth. There is a reason for this—a smile is a temporary thing, a flash of happiness that should always be mere seconds in length, any longer and it becomes a fixed, maniacal grin, the grin of the evil or the insane and to render it in metal for all eternity is to fix it and lose its warmth and genuineness. That and the fact that numismatic designers can’t seem to do teeth. . . . Of course this is just one aspect of a design that otherwise is quite charming, although you wouldn’t know it to read the press. As ever, various sections of the media have decided they don’t like the coin and have been happy to say so, but I wonder why? They do this every time a new coin is launched: there was criticism of the new Matthew Dent Series, of the £2 coin, of the 20p of the £1 and there will be criticism of every new coin from her to eternity—it’s what these people do. But why does it matter so much? Why in fact does numismatic design matter at all? A coin, after all, is merely a token these days: it represents a unit of currency and ultimately serves one real purpose—to be exchanged for goods or services. It no longer has to have an intrinsic value (I’m talking about circulating coins here of course, not bullion) and doesn’t really have to do anything apart from tell its owner and the person with whom they are negotiating what its value is and whether or not it is legal tender in that country. Coins could, ultimately, simply denote their denomination and country of origin, they don’t have to look pretty or have intricate designs on them, they do, I suppose have to be different shapes and colours to help differentiate between them but they certainly don’t have to commemorate anything or represent anything. And yet they do, and we care that they do. But why? Don’t get me wrong I’m very pleased that our coinage is not utilitarian, that some thought has gone into the design, that coins are issued to celebrate and commemorate and that the press devotes large amounts of its time talking about how important a design is, or how well/badly a subject has been rendered. I’m also very glad that the public take enough trouble to care what is on their coins and some of them even care enough to start becoming collectors, I know they do because I’m one of them but I’m still puzzled as to why we care that much. As mentioned a coin is really just a token to be used for purchasing and yet across the country, indeed across the globe, what goes onto coins (and notes come to that) is hugely important to a lot of people. Is it perhaps an extension of national pride, national identity, a need to be proud of our money because it represents who we are as a nation? (Look at the furore surrounding the need to have national designs on the Euro coins rather than “standard” ones and the apathy with which the designs of the Euro notes was met). Is it because having designed coins it is just something we’ve always done and, having got used to it we simply carry on? Or is it because we actually like to surround ourselves with things that are aesthetically pleasing and actually want something attractive to use every day rather than something simply utilitarian? I am sure anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists would have a field day trying to work out why we like beautiful coins why we care so much about what is featured on the pound in our pocket and I shall leave such ponderings to them, all I shall say is that I am glad the Royal Mint takes time to come up with new designs on a regular basis and I am glad that the press and public care enough to criticise those designs (justified criticism or not). We would all, I think, be far worse off if no-one cared at all.
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