The greatest medal that was never struck finally becomes reality
- Published: May 15, 2015, 7 AM
The following is the first segment from a feature article appearing in the June 2015 issue of Coin World Monthly:
Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo brought an end to 23 years of battle in Europe, but was the beginning of acclaimed Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci’s 30 years of toiling to create a masterpiece medal marking the battle.
Pistrucci’s masterpiece Waterloo Medal was ultimately never issued to the intended recipients, though modern-day recreations proliferate.
Napoleon’s end sparks medal
In 1815, allied forces led by Britain’s Duke of Wellington and Prussia’s Gen. Gebhart Blücher defeated French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo.
The Allied armies suffered an estimated 24,000 casualties in the battle, with 4,700 killed, 14,600 wounded and 4,700 missing. However, their victory ended Bonaparte’s designs on domination of Europe, bringing almost 100 years of peace to Europe following the multiple wars dating back to 1792 that had fractured the continent.
William Wellesley Pole, an elder brother of the Duke of Wellington, was appointed master of the Royal Mint in 1814, right after it had moved from its cramped quarters in the Tower of London to a purpose-built edifice just across the road on Tower Hill.
In 1819 Pistrucci was commissioned to design the Waterloo Medal to commemorate Britain and its European allies’ defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The medallic project was conceived by Britain’s prince regent, later George IV. Four medals were to be struck in gold for the rulers of Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia, with two in silver for the British and Prussian field marshals.
Pistrucci negotiated an incredibly high fee for the project. Initially a sum of £2,400 was agreed upon, with payments made in installments. The fee was later raised to £3,500, as the artist considered the task to be the equivalent of designing 30 medals.
He was undoubtedly right.
While reviewing the dies that Pistrucci delivered to the Mint 30 years after he was awarded the contract, Kevin Clancy told Coin World (Nov. 19, 2007, issue) that “these are undoubtedly among the finest examples of the engraver’s art. Unfortunately the medal was never struck, partly because of Pistrucci’s extreme dilatoriness and partly because of technical difficulties in striking such a large piece.”
If struck, the medal would have measured 139 millimeters in diameter. No medal of this kind and size had been struck before or during that period.
Understandably, the historic nature of the medal can explain some of the delay. But many other causes contributed.
While designing the contracted medal, Pistrucci also worked on the coronation medal of George IV and designed new coinage issued in 1821. The engraver was also commissioned to create a medal for Pole, marking his friend’s tenure as Master of the Mint, which came to an end in 1823.
A combination of Pistrucci’s nature and frustrations with bureaucracy greatly contributed to the delays, however.
When Thomas Wyon, the Mint’s chief engraver, died in 1817, Pole wished to appoint Pistrucci to the role. However, there was a problem. The Statute of Limitations passed during the reign of William III (1694 to 1702) effectively barred foreigners from holding the post, as it forbid aliens from holding the custody of the nation’s dies. Clearly no chief engraver could work without having the dies under his control.
Pole found a loophole in the legislation by leaving the post of chief engraver vacant and paying Pistrucci a salary of £500 a year for his work at the Royal Mint. Additionally, he gave Pistrucci an official residence, workrooms, furnaces, striking presses and a workman for his public and private commissions. This could have worked well, had Pistrucci not maintained that Pole had promised him the position of chief engraver and that he was never appointed.
The Royal Mint’s record books detail Pistrucci’s frequent complaints as well as Pole’s emphatic denials that no promise was made. It is possible that Pole, when a recently appointed Master of the Mint, made a promise to Pistrucci that he did not know he could not keep.
This was a major sticking point for completing the medal, according to Benedetto Pistrucci Principal Engraver Chief Medallist of the Royal Mint 1783-1855 by Michael Marsh.
“The many problems of the past in the main presented by officials of the mint and the uncertainty they caused him had made him unwilling to finish the medal, which he vowed he would not complete until his position was recognised and the Mint acknowledged his work,” wrote Marsh.
Pole’s retirement in 1823 meant that Pistrucci lost an ally, and his dismissal from the Royal Mint was under consideration for a time in 1824, before the possibility was rejected. One reason he was retained is that he had not finished the Waterloo Medal, despite having being paid £1,700 to date.
In 1828 Pistrucci received a permanent appointment at the Mint — the post of chief medalist. But this was not the post that he wanted. To make matters worse, William Wyon, who was his former deputy, was appointed to the post of chief engraver.
In his own words, Pistrucci was “at war with the Mint,” and so he sent his family back to Italy so he would have no distractions from the warfare, according to Marsh.
Besides waging “war” at the mint, Pistrucci was fulfilling private commissions for cameos, spending about half his time on commissions and half his time on the Waterloo Medal.
Marsh details a series of medals and cameos Pistrucci created during the 1820s and 1830s, as the Waterloo Medal project apparently lay dormant.
Not before 1846 did Pistrucci begin in earnest to work on the Waterloo Medal again, finally finishing in 1849, at which time the balance of £1,500 was paid to him.
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