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Portraits of Queen on Coins Change
By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
July 17, 2012

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Iconography has been important on coins ever since coins were first invented somewhere in Asia Minor about 2,600 years ago. Archaeologists have been able to view images of some monarchs exclusively from their portrait on coins.

In the United States the average non-collector would understand that Abraham Lincoln’s image has likely appeared on more coins than has the image of anyone else. In fact, the person whose image appears on coins more frequently than that of anyone else is Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. Portraits of the queen on coins have changed significantly since she began her reign in 1952. The 60th anniversary of her reign was recently celebrated, including on coins, throughout the Commonwealth.

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Queen Elizabeth II is not the first monarch whose depiction on coins has changed as she ages. The four portraits of Queen Victoria that appear on her 19th century coins reflect the aging process as well, however this time some of the numismatic changes may be for reasons other than the aging of the monarch.

The reasons for the various portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, many of which appear on stamps, paintings, and other art forms, are examined in an article by Roy Strong appearing in the June 20 issue of The Art Newspaper published by the auction house Christie’s. Strong emphasizes how our changing society and increased media scrutiny throughout the 20th century have impacted the ways in which the queen’s depiction has changed throughout her 60-year reign. The six portraits of the queen that have appeared on British coinage since 1953 reflect some of these changes in 20th century society.

According to Strong, “During her lifetime, film and television were to play crucial roles in sustaining and spreading the monarchical image as well as photography, which began controllable but became ever more intrusive in the age of the paparazzi.”

Strong continues that “during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, any attempt to control the royal image was to become increasingly difficult.”

Coinage portraiture has been kept under this control primarily due to the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, which judges and recommends designs for not only coins, but for official medals, seals, and decorations as well. Established in 1922 during the reign of King George V, appointments to the board are approved directly by the queen, who also reviews all decisions made by the committee. In addition, the queen’s consort, Prince Philip, was president of the committee between 1952 and 1999 when he chose to retire. All other members receive seven-year terms. Officially the committee’s purpose is “to raise the standard of numismatic art in the United Kingdom.”

In 1953 the Mary Gillick portrait of the queen was “fresh, evocative and beautifully reflected the optimistic mood of the nation as it greeted a new Elizabethan era,” according to the British Royal Mint website. The queen is depicted wearing a wreath.

According to Strong, by the 1960s “a new formula was urgently needed to reflect that the palace wasn’t wholly out of tune with the social revolution of the era. It called for something that was not so assertive in terms of props but looked instead to present the monarch as a timeless figurehead presiding over the nation.”

The Arnold Machin coinage portrait first appearing in 1968 purposely avoided the couped portrait cut off by the neck while replacing the wreath with a tiara, however the couped portrait returned in 1985 on the design by Raphael Makouf. On the Makouf design the queen wears a royal diadem, a necklace, and earrings.

Strong does not incorporate coin images directly into his Christie’s article, however he does note that in recent history the palace has had to address what he calls ”the all-pervading cult of ordinariness, the long-term consequence of its role in what was a ‘crowned republic.’”

He further describes this as the “value for money, and its [the royal family’s] daily life, give or take a bit, was to be seen as only a remove or two from middle-class living.” The Ian Rank-Broadley coinage portrait first appearing in 1998 is a step in this direction. According to the BRM website, the design “makes an interesting contrast with its immediate predecessor, being less idealized and more strongly realistic,” continuing, “no need to disguise the matureness of the queen’s years. There is no need to flatter her. She is a 70-year-old woman with poise and bearing.”

The 2012 design, also by Rank-Broadley, is meant to “encapsulate the queen’s sixty years on the throne” and is “inspired by the commemorative medal struck by the Royal Mint for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.”

Strong’s summary that “The Queen, whether she liked it or not, had been packaged as a product in the consumer age” is correct – her image on coins has become a trademark while as Strong puts it, “The real Elizabeth Windsor remains an enigma.”

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