Many people thought that Queen Victoria’s first shilling was the most extraordinary coin ever struck, simply because it portrayed the head of an Indian elephant … or so they said. Makes me think that the Victorians (or the early Daily Mail) had vivid imaginations! Like the William coin shown last time, constant wear made the ‘image’ more pronounced, this time in the shape of an elephant. Anyway, having being told, I can now envisage the pachyderm … or is it just a bun? Can YOU see it?
Portraits on coins sometimes cause controversy and are often criticised. In 1952, artist Mary Gillick’s design of a new ‘Elizabeth II head’ for a set of coins did just that. She showed the Queen in profile as a girl with an unusually long graceful neck and a laurel leaf in her hair.
Sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose own work often aroused controversy, said: “it might be any pretty girl. It isn’t a good likeness, as far as I can judge.” Perhaps he was annoyed at not getting the commission himself!
Newspapers printed the artist’s version alongside pictures of the Queen in similar profile and asked readers what they thought. Humphrey Paget, who designed the head of King George VI for the last reign, defended Mrs. Gillick’s work. “It is a very pleasant design,” he said. “The Queen has a long neck. I have taken measurements.”
Sometime during the 15th century a weary pilgrim returned from his visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham to his home in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. In one of his fields he carefully took the lead ampulla containing holy water and suspended on a cord around his neck, pierced a hole in the side, and allowed the liquid to flow onto the soil.
I assume for the purposes of this account, that the pilgrim was a man, but could equally have been a woman. He was tired because the journey, now easily accomplished in a few hours by car, had taken three days on foot, but he’d had the company of others providing both companionship and protection.
How do I know all this, and just how much is just conjecture and imaginative writing? Seasoned detectorists know the story because many have found discarded ampullae in fields (and from shrines other than Walsingham). The holy water sprinkled on the soil was to bless the crops and ensure a good harvest.
The catalyst for this piece was a comment in an old 1924 newspaper by art critic John Ruskin on the old type of sovereign. I wonder if, in the eyes of some people, the coin was made to look comic through lack of knowledge or skill of the designer? St. George is shown fighting the dragon with a sword the size of a carving knife, his feet bare, and wearing a helmet. Seriously, would you go in to battle like this?
“As a design how brightly comic it is! The horse looking abstractedly into the air, instead of where precisely it would have looked, at the beast between its legs: St George, with nothing but his helmet on (being the last piece of armour he is likely to want), putting his naked feet, at least his feet showing their toes through the *buskins, well forward, that the dragon may with the greatest convenience get a bite at them; and about to deliver a mortal blow at him with a sword which cannot reach him by a couple of yards, or, I think, in George III’s piece, with a field-marshal’s truncheon.”
John Ruskin – *A buskin is a calf-high boot of leather.