World Coins

British Museum opens exhibit for Queen’s original portrait artist

Coin designer Mary Gillick is seen here holding a plaster for her new coin design in a photo reproduced from “The Evening News,” Nov. 28, 1952.

All Coin World images by Jeff Starck.

The United Kingdom in early June celebrated the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II — the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne — with a suite of events fitting for the royal moment.

To coincide with this historic event, the British Museum has launched a new display exploring the artist behind the queen’s first coin portrait, Mary Gillick.

“Mary Gillick modelling the Queen’s portrait” is housed in the Asahi Shimbun Gallery, just inside the main entrance of the museum in London. The exhibit runs from June 2 to July 31, and has spawned a new book about the artist and her work.

Gillick, who died Jan. 27, 1965, was one of the oldest artists to have her image of a monarch chosen for coinage.

Her most famous work

In contrast to the young queen, then 26, Gillick was much older, at 71, in 1952 when her effigy was selected from a field of 17 to be used on circulation coinage for the new Queen Elizabeth II, first issued in 1953.

“The young queen on new money,” reads the top line of a museum display panel, with various headlines from news coverage about the new design.

Among other headlines are: “First Coins of New Reign are Minted,” “A laurel wreath and a ribbon give coronation coins their new look,” and “Widow of 71 gave up her holiday to finish design.”

A panel in the exhibit explains how Gillick’s artistry had been influenced by medals of the Italian Renaissance while allowing for modern touches, noting, “This experience stood her in good stead later in life, when she came to make The Queen’s portrait in 1952.”

Gillick’s design was employed on all United Kingdom coinage, as well as coins from across the Commonwealth, and remained in use for UK coins until decimalization.

The Arnold Machin effigy (which debuted in 1965 in Canada) followed Gillick’s design, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, at least six other designs have appeared on UK or Commonwealth coins.

The original Gillick effigy is still used for silver Maundy money.

The original design was slightly modified, when minor tweaks were made.

The superiority of the design became apparent to the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, according to the new book, Mary Gillick Sculptor and Medallist, by Philip Attwood, which was just published by the British Museum and Spink, with the exhibit.

Gillick’s family in 2005 donated the artist’s archives, including plasters, to the British Museum, which drew upon this donation for the exhibit (and it was a source of research for the book).

British, other medals

Besides presenting the story of the coinage design, the exhibit showcases Gillick’s medallic artwork, including official commissions and public artwork.

Gillick’s portraiture of the young queen was borrowed for several official medals, including the Royal Society’s royal medal, which is part of the display.

Her other works include a portrait medal for Prince Philip, and the Queen’s Korea medal, which was bestowed on fighters in the Korean War from the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

A uniface white metal trial strike, donated by the Gillick family, is part of the display.

A new reference work

Gillick may not have the stature of other famous coin designers, but the new book could change that.

“This is the first published study of this neglected British artist,” according to the publishers. “It will be of interest to art historians and numismatists alike.”

The 210-page hardcover book was published at £25 and is available from the Spink’s books division, found online at https://spinkbooks.com/.

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