Change for change

Click here to view individual coins in detail

Many high street shoppers would agree: an annoying feature of shopping with cash in the UK is the inevitable pocket-full of coins you’re left with at the end of the day. Somehow inadequate for anything other than laundry and snack machines, this metallic wallet-weight sometimes leaves me yearning for days when crisp dollar bills well-suited 99 cent offers in New York suburbs, or in Cairo where people round up to the nearest Egyptian pound and where you can string a 25 piastre coin onto a necklace. Despite that, I still hold my childhood fondness for one pound coins in memory of a small red treasure chest I used to use to collect my empowering single-digit allowance. And I occasionally revel in taking my plastic-bagged one and two pence coins into the bank to see them dwindle down to a mere single pound in return.

But all sentimentality aside, the recent re-design of British coinage is undoubtedly welcome news. And even more so, it’s impressive. Announced yesterday and heralded as the ‘biggest change in coinage history since decimalization‘, the coin overhaul comes as the result of a public competition to replace the current emblems on Britain’s circulating coins in order to create the new ‘United Coins for a United Kingdom’. The competition brought forth more than 4,000 designs from over 500 people, including specially invited artists, Royal Mint engravers, artists from other European countries, as well as people of other backgrounds (the largest ever turnout of its kind). The aim was to create ‘a coherent series of designs’ whilst exploring heraldic emblems and motifs to symbolise Britain. And the winner did just that: Matthew Dent, a 26 year-old professional graphic designer saw the competition advertised in a national newspaper and set off to create a single design across the six denominations. With the one pound coin unifying the others via his use of the shield of the Royal Coat of Arms, he conceived a contemporary look for the nearly 40 year-old coins we are so used to complaining about today.

When asked about his design, Dent’s response was as follows: ‘I felt that the solution to the Royal Mint’s brief lay in a united design–united in terms of theme, execution and coverage over the surface of the coins. […] The issue with this for me lay in their distribution; how to represent the whole of the United Kingdom over six coins. […] I thought the six coins could make up a shield by arranging the coins both horizontally, as with the landscape idea, as well as vertically, in a sort of jigsaw style. I liked the idea and symbolism of using the Royal Arms, where individually the coins could focus on specific elements and when placed together they reveal the complete Royal Arms. I found the idea that members of the public could interact with the coins the most exciting aspect of this concept. It’s easy to imagine the coins pushed around a school classroom table or fumbled around with on a bar–being pieced together as a jigsaw and just having fun with them.’

The Royal Arms has been featured on British coinage since the reign of Edward III (1327-77). Virtually unchanged since the reign of Queen Victoria, it’s a symbol of the Queen’s authority over the the UK, used to great effect by numismatic artists over the course of her reign. The modern one pound coin of 1983 bore the Royal Arms on its reverse, designed by Eric Sewell and now a famous symbol of British currency (this was then followed in 1988 with a one pound reverse design by Derek Gorringe depicting a crowned shield of the Royal Arms–see ‘British Coins – One Pound’ for an extensive list). But Dent’s design utilizes the four parts of the Royal Arms, with all four quarters spread over the six coins from one pound to fifty pence: the three lions passant guardant in the first and fourth quarters (England), the lion rampant in the second (Scotland), and the harp the third (Ireland).

So is it every coin collector’s dream? Well, some have criticized it as having ‘banished Britannia’–Britannia being the personification of the British Isles (courtesy of the Romans), first appearing on a British coin under the reign of Charles II in 1672. It has also created some discontent in Wales with regard to the removal of the Welsh dragon and three feathers. But as it is commonly known, matters related to Her Royal Majesty, power distribution in the Kingdom, and change in general (alteration-change, not the money sort) can be a bit sensitively received. But apart from that, it really is a beautifully well-thought out design that has in fact been approved by the Queen herself. That said, I commend Dent in his efforts and greatly look forward to the next time I do my laundry.

The Royal Shield of Arms Brilliant Uncirculated Set (First of the New) is now made available by the Westminster Collection

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

See also: First of the New (Video Footage, The Royal Mint)

‘Britannia banished as coins get a makeover’, (The Independent)

The Emblems of Britain (The Royal Mint)

‘Brass in pocket’ (BBC News Magazine)


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