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A Dynasty of Engravers

Started by Galapagos, September 03, 2009, 02:47:48 PM

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I have transcribed and scanned this article from the Royal Mint's "Coin Club Bulletin", Issue No. 30,  Spring Edition, 1989. It is copyright of the Royal Mint.

A Dynasty of Engravers

For much of the nineteenth century the Royal Mint was a relatively small organisation, little more than 100 strong. Family influence was much in evidence, and nowhere more so than in an Engraving Department dominated by the Wyons. No fewer than six of them were employed at different times during the course of the century, while outside the Mint other Wyons were to be found in privately-run mints in Birmingham or as medallists and seal engravers in London.

The family, originally from Germany, had become established in Birmingham during the previous century. It was not until 1811 that the first of them came to the Royal Mint, when Thomas Wyon junior, "a young artist of promising abilities", was appointed to enliven a somewhat moribund Engraving Department. In 1815, still in his early twenties, Thomas succeeded to the post of Chief Engraver, and confirmed his early promise with a series of handsome coins and medals, including the silver medal awarded to the victorious troops at Waterloo.

He was assisted for a time by his father, Thomas, but it was a young cousin, William, appointed Second Engraver in 1816, who joined him on a permanent basis. The Master of the Mint, William Wellesley Pole, had not been keen that the two senior engraving posts should be occupied by the same family and discouraged William from taking part in the competition to fill the post. At the eleventh hour, however, William decided to compete anonymously and when his entry was selected as the most skilful, Pole could not refuse him the appointment. Sadly, the two Wyons were not long to work in harness, for Thomas, never very robust, died in September 1817.

His post of Chief Engraver was left vacant, its duties for the moment performed by the temperamental Italian, Benedetto Pistrucci, whose skill Pole valued far above that of William Wyon. The modest and self-effacing Wyon therefore laboured without appreciation while Pole remained Master. But after Pole had left and Pistrucci had disgraced himself by refusing to copy Chantrey's bust of George IV, Wyon's talent came to be recognised, and in 1828 he was at last promoted to Chief Engraver.

The most famous of the Wyons, William produced many beautiful and well-known designs, prominent among them his "Young Head" of Victoria. "You always represent me favourably", the Queen told him, and it was in fact one of his medal portraits of her that served as the model for the first postage stamps. Yet he worked against the background of a long-running and often embarrassing public rivalry with the embittered Pistrucci, who maintained that he should be Chief Engraver.

William's son, Leonard, having been trained virtually from birth to succeed his father, was appointed Second Engraver in 1844. But when William died in 1851, the post of Chief Engraver was abolished and Leonard had to be content as a non-resident Modeller and Engraver to the Mint. William's cousin, James, who had acted as his assistant, took the lesser appointment of Resident Engraver (1851-1861), briefly to be succeeded by his son, George (1861-62).

Leonard, though in the view of Sir Charles Fremantle the best engraver available and "a man of taste and cultivation", did not inherit the full talent of his father. Nevertheless, he was a conscientious worker, anxious "to elevate the Art of the Coinage to the utmost of my ability". And he produced some attractive coins and medals, among them the famous "bun" pennies of 1860, whose design was personally supervised by the Queen and the Prince Consort.

His death in 1891 brought to an end the family's direct association with the Royal Mint. Their memory, however, survives and the name Wyon is sure to be mentioned whenever British coin designs are discussed by numismatists.


Illustrations scanned from the Royal Mint's Bulletin:-

1] William Wyon.gif

1.    Wyon, from a sketch by his son Leonard.

2] Medal for opening of Waterloo Bridge.gif

2.    This medal, commemorating the opening of London's Waterloo Bridge in 1817 was designed by Thomas Wyon junior.

3] Victoria - Young Head.gif
3.    The "Young Head" of Queen Victoria, by William Wyon.


Illustrations scanned from the Royal Mint's Bulletin, continued:-

4] Una and the Lion.gif

4.    William Wyon's famous "Una and the Lion" five pound piece of 1839.

5] RNLI medal detail.gif

5.    The figure of the rescuer on William Wyon's medal for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is said to be that of the engraver himself.

6] Gothic Crown.gif

6.    William Wyon's Gothic crown is considered one of the most beautiful British coins ever struck.

7] Bun head penny.gif

7.    The familiar "bun" penny, designed by Leonard Wyon.


For "beautiful" I'd take Una and the Lion over the Gothic Crown any day, but that's just personal taste.


I much prefer the Gothic crown, as it's of a real person. Let's face it, that Una and the Lion scene could never happen in real life. I used to have a "Good" version only of the Gothic florin, but I sold it in the 1990s.


William Wyon also designed the effigy on the obverse of the coinage of Venezuela