Many American numismatists may have heard this expression, used by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1904 letter to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortier Shaw to describe US coins:
“I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty?”1
Putting aside the favoritism this request entailed, a practice which the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens himself employed on occasion, the immediate result was the Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle, among the most beautiful U.S. coins produced. But Teddy Roosevelt’s executive intervention into the aesthetics of coin design had a similar precedent in that taken by King Charles I of England, almost three centuries earlier. Let’s take a look.
Setting the stage
Charles I was crowned King of England in 1625, at the age of 25. Henry Ferdinand, Charles’s older brother, had been groomed since birth for the throne, but his death of a fever in 1612 thrust Charles out of a reclusive childhood spent overcoming a speech impediment and a frail disposition and into the limelight as the new heir to the throne. This sudden elevation, apparently the act of God, lent credence to the writings of Charles’s father, King James I, about the theological basis for royal authority, and helps explain Charles’s religious devotion and his views about the divine right of kings.
Charles came to the throne a self-righteous, determined and stubborn young man with a refined and expensive taste in art. While his inability to compromise and extravagant spending would prove his eventual undoing, these qualities also produced a stubborn insistence on aesthetically superior coinage that would have an impact for years to come.2
To mark Charles’s ascent to the throne, the chief engraver and designer at the Royal Mint, Edward Green, set about designing new coinage. Given Charles’s refined tastes, you can imagine his reaction when confronted with the new coinage, as represented by this example of an early shilling, which supposedly depicts him in his coronation robes:
Charles I (1625-49) Silver Shilling. Not dated, struck circa 1625. Obverse Group A, second bust left, with ruff collar and coronation robes, larger crown with jeweled outer arch, value behind. Mintmark lis (London, Tower Mint). Reverse long cross fourchée over square-topped shield of quartered arms (N 2216; S 2782).
The horror! Ruff collars were admittedly in fashion during the early years of Charles’s reign, but the overall impression is clumsy and clownish, with features that bore little resemblance to the king. Compare that monstrosity to this detail from one of the wonderful portraits Charles was soon to commission, at great expense, from the talented Dutch artist Anthony Van Dyck.3
As an aside, the single pearl earring seemed to have been all the rage back then, since Johannes Vermeer’s model in “Girl with Pearl Earring” wore a similar one, also in the left ear, at about the same time.4 In addition, by the year this portrait was painted, ruff collars had given way to collars that were the forerunners of the shirt collars we see today.
Charles apparently knew he was going to be dissatisfied with Green’s work before it even appeared but let it proceed anyway, either due to time constraints, or perhaps because Green was his father’s appointee and Charles had enough decorum not to dismiss him out of hand. That didn’t mean he was going to let such ‘atrocious hideousness’ stand uncorrected, though.
An initial fix
Charles had already engaged Abraham Van der Doort, a Dutchman who was serving as his Groom of the Chamber and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, and assigned him the task of improving the effigy of the king on the design.5 Van der Doort was skilled in the design of high-relief images for medals, and his influence helped improve subsequent issues.
Unfortunately, the patterns Van der Doort produced that the King most favored were “at odds with prevailing Mint practice, which was to produce coins which were ‘broad and thin’ at some speed. As the Mint officials explained, Van der Doort’s ‘embossments’ were too high to ‘rise in the moneys’ and the execution of them was ‘so curiously done’ [detailed] that Mint output would be slowed down.”6 As a result, Green’s position as chief engraver remained secure.
A second try
Charles was not to be dissuaded, however, and retained the Frenchman Nicolas Briot, both to engrave a new Great Seal of England and to pick up where Van der Doort left off. After an initial period confined solely to engraving the king’s effigy, Briot was finally installed in the Tower and began using his own machinery to produce small quantities of coins, first in 1631/2 and again in 1638/9.
The exact details of Briot’s machinery are unclear, but it is thought he used two methods: oval blanks fed into rocker dies for larger denominations, and circular blanks struck in a screw press for smaller ones.7
The first trial in 1631/2 proved inefficient compared to the normal production run, but the second trial, limited to silver issues, was satisfactory. Both runs were superior from an aesthetic viewpoint, being produced from superior dies. Since they were machine made, they were also more consistently round, without the ‘curve and tang’ appearance8 of many hastily produced hammered coins of the period. Below is an example of a shilling from the second run:
Charles I (1625-49) Silver Shilling. Nicholas Briot’s coinage, second milled issue, 1638-1639. Mintmark anchor and B (London, Tower Mint). Briot’s late bust left, value behind, reverse long cross fourchée over square-topped shield (N 2305; S 2859).
To compare the shilling of 1625 and the one of 1638/9, both to each other and to the portrait of the king, is to realize that there was no comparison. Seventeen years of Civil War, Interregnum and a bewildering variety of hammered coins and siege pieces later, the establishment of Peter Blondeau’s machinery at the Mint in 1656 to produce Oliver Cromwell’s portrait coins9 signaled the end of hammered coinage in England.
It is interesting to note the similarities in these two episodes
- Both featured long-standing, formulaic designs produced by established mints that were focused primarily on producibility and consistent weight and fineness
- Both Charles I and Roosevelt sought to improve the artistic appeal by introducing outsiders whose main expertise was sculpture and design
- Both Charles I and Roosevelt showed a readiness to bypass Parliament/Congress to achieve their goals – in Charles’s case, with disastrous consequences
In both cases the almost mutually exclusive goals of aesthetic design and producibility required compromises or long-term change to achieve
- In Charles’s day, while Van Der Doort’s intricate, high-relief patterns proved unsuitable for production, Charles’s influence invigorated design, and Briot’s artistry, expertise and innovative machinery led to the transition from hammered to milled coinage
- In Roosevelt’s day, Saint-Gaudens’s early high-relief designs also proved unsuitable for mass production, but design compromises resulted in the beautiful American Eagle and Double Eagle coins produced for a generation until withdrawn from circulation in 1933
- Roger Burdette, “Roosevelt redesign ‘genesis letter’ surfaces,” Coin World, 12-26-11, http://tinyurl.com/cftjgws, accessed 26 March 2013.
- Charles I (r. 1625–49), The British Monarchy, http://tinyurl.com/blqnoom, accessed 26 March 2013.
- Detail from “Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles,” by Anthony Van Dyck. Painted about 1636. Image is not copyrighted and is in the public domain.
- Jonathan Janson, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” resource page, http://tinyurl.com/bo7ocbu, accessed 26 March 2013.
- Steve Hill, “The story behind the Engraver” in “Lot 5023: Rare English Coins, Charles I (1625-49), Unique Gold Pattern Triple Unite,” Auction Number 48, One Hundred Numismatic Rarities. London: Baldwin’s Auctions, 26 September 2006. Interestingly, Van der Doort committed suicide in 1640, in despair over misplacing a miniature portrait of the King’s head. Had he simply continued to look a bit longer, in another 9 years the actual head was ‘misplaced,’ rendering his loss quite insignificant.
- C.E. Challis, ed., A New History of the Royal Mint. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992, page 300.
- Ibid, page 301.
- Ibid, figure 24, page 295.
- Philip Skingley, ed., Coins of England & the United Kingdom, 48th Edition, Standard Catalogue of British Coins. London: Spink, 2013, page 325.
- Coin images are copyright and from the author’s collection.
This article appeared in the July 2013 issue of Coin News.