Funny how this week, I find myself writing about two coin designers: Bertram Mackennal and Christopher Ironside. Both men are being honoured in two very different ways. Mackennal, for all his work in coin and medal design, was more in touch with stamp collectors. That may have been because of his relationship with King George V, an avid stamp collector. It certainly seemed he benefited from a bit of royal patronage. He is being remembered on a stamp.
Ironside, while he also did a bit of philatelic work, was a powerhouse coin designer. Again, that may have been because he had a close relationship with Jack James, then deputy master of the Royal Mint. That close relationship may have been a contributing factor in his success as a coin designer. He is being remembered with one of his coin designs.
I have always been fascinated with great coin designers, people who stood head and shoulders above the crowd, and sometimes who bucked the system to succeed: Benedetto Pistrucci, who despite being a genius, was held back at the Royal Mint because he was an Italian; the incredible Wyon family, who may have defined British Empire coins for more than a generation; and Tommy Shingles, who hand-carved master dies for the Canadian V nickel. I find it interesting to look at some of the coin designers from my era to try to figure out who will be considered a great by the next generation.
Certainly Dora De Pedery-Hunt – not only for her effigy of Queen Elizabeth II on Canada’s coins, but also because of her huge body of work producing medals, and her ability to work in both abstract and traditional styles – will be one of those people. Other than that, I will refrain on passing judgment on still-living designers. For one thing, they have not yet completed their body of work. Another reason is that great designers are not just artistically competent, they also have a vision. I remember years ago, talking to a coin designer who shall remain unnamed, about some of his work.
I asked what I thought was a very insightful question, comparing his recent work to some of his earlier work, and asking if he was exploring the concepts of forced perspective, and of creating motion by pushing designs to the edge of the coin. He looked at me as if I had just asked him the square root of 34,512 and slowly replied, “I never thought of that.” Somehow, I doubt that particular chap will be remembered by the next generation as a great designer. In fact, I sometimes suspect that the business of making coins has changed so much that it may be difficult to recognize such a giant.
Back in the days of Ironside and Shingles, designers had a very free hand. In some cases they were given little more than a topic or a theme, or just told to come up with design. Today, designers are often given tight mandates, and their work is subject to extensive outside scrutiny during the creative process. Coin designs often have to pass through the hands of bureaucrats and study groups before getting into production, a process that’s not conducive to artistic risks. Modern coin designers have great talent, but I suspect much less artistic freedom than many would like to have. Just once I would like to hear someone tell me how the entire coin design, from conceptualization on, was the work of one mind and one pair of hands.