Iron Age Hoard
Volume 54, Number 11, November 2017
Facing reality THE MOST recent offerings from the Royal Mint—a series of coins with two different designs celebrating the Platinum Wedding of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Prince Philip (see page 29)—have caused something of a stir in numismatic circles. Now the fact that they have a jugate obverse (double portraits of the couple) is of interest certainly, but it’s not really surprising. Admittedly, until the present reign such a portrait hadn’t appeared on a British coin since the joint reign of William and Mary in the late 17th century, but as we had one ten years ago for the Diamond Wedding and a similar design actually appeared on a £5 crown ten years before that for the Golden Wedding, a double portrait this time around was more or less a given. No, what has got tongues wagging is the actual portrait itself; it is, how can I put it? Rather realistic. Both the Queen and her husband are now in their nineties and, there is no pretending otherwise, they can’t really be considered in the first flush of youth any more. They are, to put it bluntly, pretty old and whilst they may look well on it, there is no denying that there is a wrinkle or two in evidence. This has been reflected in the new conjoined portrait with Her Majesty and His Royal Highness being shown very much as they are, rather than how they, or indeed we, might wish them to be. The effect is, at first, quite shocking, but then we realise that actually this is probably how they look were we to meet them face to face and so is it such a bad thing to see that reality on a coin? Portraits on coins have always been the subject of controversy: ancient coins, of course, usually depicted a pretty good likeness of the ruler, be it Alexander the Great or Hadrian. Yes, there would have been some artistic licence but a coin of Faustina would have been easy to tell apart from one of Julia Domna, and Titus is very different from Caligula. That realism was to be lost to British coinage in the dark ages and the portraits on early hammered coins were very much a stylised representation of the ruler rather than a true likeness. That changed in the time of Henry VII when the portrait adorning his coins actually looked like the king himself—something that has been adopted ever since—to a greater or lesser degree. Elizabeth I and Charles I certainly seem to look on coins as they do in portraits and then, with the advent of milling, the ability to create a true likeness of the monarch was much easier, leading to the realism we have today. Yes, there were times when that realism itself became somewhat stylised to suit the times—I’m thinking particularly of the coins of George III when he was being shown as a strong “Emperor” figure (the 1816 Bullhead especially) even though he was actually pretty much incapacitated by that time and only a few years from death. But as a rule the portrait you saw on a coin was pretty much how the monarch looked, give or take. In a long reign such as the current Queen’s or that of her great great grandmother, Victoria, such a need for realism means a number of portraits will be seen on coinage and sometimes the change from one to another will be controversial—as we saw with Her Majesty’s “double chin” on the Ian Rank-Broadly portrait that was introduced in 1998, following Raphael Maklouf’s far more regal rendition (one somewhere in the middle might have lessened the impact!). Despite the odd controversy the populace generally understands the need to change the portrait to keep up with the inevitable ageing of the subject and in the most recent unveiling of the fifth bust of Her Majesty by Jody Clark in 2015 there was barely a murmur—the ageing was there but it was subtle. On these latest coins there is no subtlety—it’s all out there, every wrinkle, every year of the 70 the two have been together is etched in metal and it’s quite a surprise to see, at least at first. But then you look again and realise two things, firstly, that really is how it is, the two people depicted are amongst the oldest people around (only 0.9% of the population in the UK are over 90) and in this age where “photo-shopping” and airbrushing is increasingly frowned upon, isn’t it right that they are depicted “as they are”? And secondly the Queen at least would have approved this portrait, she would have seen it, she would have said yes to it—and if it’s good enough for her then and she’s happy with it, then it really should be good enough for us too. We might want our Monarch a little less “real” but if she doesn’t mind then neither should we!
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