A new exhibition of beautiful medals at the British Museum celebrates the achievements of foreign artists and their contributions to British medallic history, and feeds into very topical debates about immigration today
From the Victoria Cross to the New Year’s Honours list, the idea of the medal – whether awarded for service, bravery, good deeds or as a commemoration – is something that most British people are familiar with. But how many of us know it was the Dutch artist Steven van Herwijck who introduced the art of the medal, already well-established on the continent, to Britain’s urban elite?
Van Herwijck’s first visit to England during the Elizabethan period was of a short duration, but three years later he returned with his wife and children. Medals have been made continuously in this country ever since.
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And as this thoughtful display tucked away in Room 69a of the British Museum reveals, artists from abroad have continued to play an important role in the development of British medallic art.
On display are a collection of beautiful medals that span six centuries, documenting significant historical moments and commemorating famous British figures, each of them inspired and created by émigré medallists.
Although the motivations and circumstances of each medallist who arrived over the centuries is unique, for many of them a position at the Royal Mint was the coveted and ultimate goal.
One of the star objects on display is the spectacular Waterloo medal, which was conceived by 19th century Italian gem engraver Benedetto Pistrucci who arrived from Italy in 1815. But due in part to wrangling over his position and salary at the Mint, the medal took 30 years to complete and by the time it appeared the four allied sovereigns George, Prince Regent, Francis II of Austria, Alexander I of Russia and King Frederick William III of Prussia, were all dead.
Nevertheless Pistrucci, who held the position of Chief Medallist to the King at the Royal Mint, remains a renowned medallist and coin-engraver. Known for producing a number of famous designs during his career, his most famous work is the George and Dragon he made for the gold sovereign introduced by George IV in 1817.
But much like today, the plight of emigrants and the impact of immigration divided public opinion and the arrival of Pistrucci and other medallists from abroad caused tensions and rivalries with British born medallists.
Pistrucci’s skill at the Mint found him in direct competition with Chief Engraver, William Wyon, whose regal effigies graced coinage from the late Georgian into the early Victorian period and made him a renowned name among numismatists.
Over a century before Pistrucci, following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, London-born Thomas Simon found himself in direct competition with John (formerly Jan) Roettiers, who arrived from Antwerp in 1661. Roettiers’ seals and medals for Charles II, James II of England and William and Mary made him one of the highest regarded engravers ever employed by the Royal Mint.
By the 1930s a number of medallists fleeing Nazi oppression sought refuge in Britain. This was a time when few British artists engaged with the medium, so the contributions made to medallic art by Fred Kormis, Artur Loewental and Paul Vincze (from Germany, Austria and Hungary respectively) have a special significance.
Vincze summed up the question of nationality in 1975 when he stated: “I am Hungarian. My wife is French. We are British.” The exhibition showcases Vincze’s medals commemorating victory in 1945, the coronation of 1953, and anniversaries of the battle of Trafalgar and the resettlement of Jews in Britain. Alongside these are Loewental’s commemorative medal of Winston Churchill, inscribed ‘his spirit saved Britain’.
Together these objects reveal the ways in which artists from abroad identified strongly with the country to which they had come.
Medals by contemporary artist Danuta Solowiej include a commission from the University of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences, with a beautiful rendition of the Iris germanica. Solowiej learned the art of medal making in Poland and has now been working in London for thirty years. The exhibition also celebrates works by Asian artists Dhruva Mistry RA from India and a young silversmith from Korea, Kyosun Jung, who is currently working in London.
Witnesses: émigré medallists in Britain is in Room 69a of the British Museum until April 7 2019. Admission is free.
London, Greater London
Founded in 1753, the British Museum’s remarkable collection spans over two million years of human history. Enjoy a unique comparison of the treasures of world cultures under one roof, centred around the magnificent Great Court. World-famous objects such as the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures, and Egyptian mummies are visited by…