Author Topic: The Origins of Thematics  (Read 18459 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
The Origins of Thematics
« on: August 01, 2010, 11:47:11 PM »
Since the 1920s, the use of themes (flora, fauna, ships, architecture, etc.) on coins has increased enormously. However, before the 20th century, when monarchies and empires were the rule, and republics were still few and far between, heraldry, coats of arms and royal emblems were far more likely to be seen on coins than anything else.

It is true that thematic designs were likely enough to appear on tokens from the 1600s onwards, and of course the ancients were also apt to depict animals, etc., but it isn't until we get into the 1800s that such designs start to appear on coins.

The coins of Ceylon are a good example here. The images here depict elephants. Nowadays an elephant would be thought an attractive enough design, but I wonder what the symbolism is here? It is noteworthy that it is an animal and not a native of Ceylon that is being depicted, probably because Europeans tended to look down on their foreign subjects. But why is an elephant in particular being shown? Is it meant to represent the exotic nature of Britain's far-flung empire? Or to appeal to Europeans, who presumably will already have started visiting zoos to inspect these intriguing creatures from overseas?

In any case, can anybody think of any earlier thematic coins than this? By this, I exclude those ancient ones that I have already mentioned.

« Last Edit: August 02, 2010, 12:02:01 AM by E.M.U. »

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #1 on: August 01, 2010, 11:50:41 PM »
Ships were one of the earliest themes to appear. I suppose they are meant to project images of trade, naval power, and the might of the far-flung empires. Here are some early ones from Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Danish West Indies.

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #2 on: August 01, 2010, 11:54:20 PM »
Now onto birds. The Burmese peacock is an attractive one, but one that I know little about. Can anyone enlighten me?

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #3 on: August 01, 2010, 11:57:45 PM »
The beautiful German New Guinea designs of the 1890s are the next ones that spring to mind. Again, it is noticeable that the authorities preferred to depict the local wildlife rather than the natives.

Offline Figleaf

  • Administrator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 23 371
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #4 on: August 02, 2010, 01:14:39 AM »


This peacock on a coin predates your Ceylonese elephant by almost two centuries.

Peter
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #5 on: August 02, 2010, 01:21:40 AM »
This peacock on a coin predates your Ceylonese elephant by almost two centuries.

True.  It seems to be intended to be part of a coat of arms, though. I was looking for more realistic depictions - though admittedly the Burmese peacock I showed is rather stylised.

akona20

  • Guest
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #6 on: August 02, 2010, 02:26:06 AM »
The green peacock is a royal symbol of Burma.

constanius

  • Guest
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #7 on: August 02, 2010, 03:56:01 AM »
It is noteworthy that it is an animal and not a native of Ceylon that is being depicted, probably because Europeans tended to look down on their foreign subjects. But why is an elephant in particular being shown? Is it meant to represent the exotic nature of Britain's far-flung empire? Or to appeal to Europeans, who presumably will already have started visiting zoos to inspect these intriguing creatures from overseas?

The elephant was the the perfect image for the coins of Ceylon.  There was 10s of thousands of them, they were used for logging, fording rivers, as war-machines(think animal tanks before the tank was invented), they carried hunters, royalty, they even scared tigers. they were in fact the "ultimate machine" of the sub-continent, the ultimate in power & usefulness.  Before the introduction  of trains, cars etc there was nothing individually more powerful on land that man could control.
Major Skinner (1815 - 67) Ceylon’s foremost road builder is said to have mentioned how invaluable the tracks of wild elephants were to him to map roads before construction. These tracks were not only well trodden but also showed the easiest access to the crossing sites of rivers and valleys.  
« Last Edit: August 02, 2010, 04:19:19 AM by constanius »

Offline Figleaf

  • Administrator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 23 371
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #8 on: August 02, 2010, 10:56:43 AM »
The peacock on the esterlin (schelling) is not a mere shield carrier (they only became fashionable in Victorian times), but an elegant solution to a problem. Trying to win back the rebellious Netherlands and believing that the Dutch aversion was to him personally, Philip II left the area not to his eldest son, but to his son-in-law, Albert of Austria and his daughter Isabella jointly. On the larger coins, there is a double portrait, but the schelling is small and the reducing machine had not been invented yet, so small portraits might have looked awkward. Here, the peacock stands for nobility and beauty. The small arms on the chest are Austria and Burgundy, clarifying that the peacock symbolizes the ruling pair. It is a symbol, but not a heraldic beastie.

Peter
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #9 on: August 02, 2010, 01:50:15 PM »
Here, the peacock stands for nobility and beauty. The small arms on the chest are Austria and Burgundy, clarifying that the peacock symbolizes the ruling pair. It is a symbol, but not a heraldic beastie.

Peter

An intriguing story, succinctly explained, Peter. Ideally in this topic I am looking for relatively realistic depictions, rather than symbolic or heraldic beasts. The latter are a whole story in themselves, and would probably warrant a topic to themselves, but inevitably it would be a huge one, and much bigger than the scope of my topic here.

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #10 on: August 02, 2010, 01:52:09 PM »
The elephant was the the perfect image for the coins of Ceylon.  There was 10s of thousands of them, they were used for logging, fording rivers, as war-machines(think animal tanks before the tank was invented), they carried hunters, royalty, they even scared tigers. they were in fact the "ultimate machine" of the sub-continent, the ultimate in power & usefulness. 

Thanks for your explanation, Constanius. So there is a fair amount bound up in these portraits of the elephant.

Offline Figleaf

  • Administrator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 23 371
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #11 on: August 02, 2010, 02:28:25 PM »
Every coin you show in this thread has symbols. The elephant is a symbol for the country, the ships symbolize trade or military success, the peacocks beauty and grace. The peacock on the Southern Netherlands coin is in no way different from the peacock on the Burmese coin. Both are symbols. As for heraldry: heraldic peacocks do not exist.

On a different tack, the distinction between heraldic and what you call "natural" animals is vague. Things are clear as far as griffons and unicorns are concerned, but how about eagles? There are US coin with pretty natural eagles. The bald eagle (btw, never saw a hairy eagle) is both a symbol of the country and, as a heraldic eagle, the central device on the US CoA (as well as the logo of many government services.) Same thing for the naturally engraved lion on the shillings of British East Africa. It is both a symbol for Africa and, as a heraldic lion, the central device for the CoA of Scotland and England.

Even the animals on the first coins of independent Ireland are symbols. They represent the country as it was at the time they were designed. You may find that part of the "pretty pictures" on pseudo coins can also be explained as symbols, representing indigenous plants, animals and agricultural products.

Peter
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #12 on: August 02, 2010, 07:20:43 PM »
Every coin you show in this thread has symbols. The elephant is a symbol for the country, the ships symbolize trade or military success, the peacocks beauty and grace. The peacock on the Southern Netherlands coin is in no way different from the peacock on the Burmese coin. Both are symbols.

On a different tack, the distinction between heraldic and what you call "natural" animals is vague. Things are clear as far as griffons and unicorns are concerned, but how about eagles? There are US coin with pretty natural eagles. The bald eagle (btw, never saw a hairy eagle) is both a symbol of the country and, as a heraldic eagle, the central device on the US CoA (as well as the logo of many government services.)

I will make some admittedly rather subjective distinctions here. I would distinguish between symbols and official symbols: the bald eagle is an official symbol of the USA; I could say that, for me, the European badger is a symbol of England, even though it is not an official one, and probably a few million Englishmen and women would agree with me. So let me say that the bald eagle is symbolic of the USA, whilst the badger is merely emblematic of England. As I said, a subjective distinction, but one that I think is easy to understand.

When an animal is a symbol of a country, its treatment on a coin will generally not be entirely naturalistic. You can see this on the US coin of which you provided an image: the eagle is in itself portrayed realistically enough - but look at those ethereal rays in the background, hinting that the eagle is somehow transcending its earthly nature and symbolising the USA itself.

The degree to which we perceive an animal as being portrayed realistically is again subjective. If an animal, which is the national symbol of that country, is portrayed on a country's coins, then we will tend to regard its depiction as more symbolic than realistic - whatever the artist's intent. So you are right - that adds a vagueness to my definitions: for you, that US eagle is fairly realistic; but for me, if I am collecting only "realistically portrayed" animals on coins, then that US coin will not end up in my collection. That is, however, an entirely subjective decision on my part.

To continue my definition, if a national symbol of a country is depicted against a natural background, such as the kiwi on this New Zealand 1933 florin, then the design is for me as much realistic as it is symbolic; in this case I regard the kiwi as more realistic than symbolic, so it goes into my collection.


Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #13 on: August 02, 2010, 07:34:57 PM »
Advancing into the 1910s now, here we see a Greek 10 lepta coin from 1912, depicting a little owl. If you've ever seen a little owl, you'll know that the owl in itself is very realistically depicted; however, the other elements in the design suggest that the owl is being used symbolically. But for me, the owl is realistic enough for me to have included it in my collection.

Also depicted here is a so-called buffalo nickel from 1913. In fact, the animal depicted is actually a bison. The portrait was reportedly modelled on a bison named Black Diamond, who lived at The New York Zoological Park Bronx Zoo. Despite this, the portrayal does not strike me as naturalistic; the animal is too obviously posed, and the artistic treatment is too stylised for my taste.

If you think I have missed any outstanding thematic designs from this period, please post them up.

Offline <k>

  • Moderator
  • Honorary Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 13 689
Re: The Origins of Thematics
« Reply #14 on: August 02, 2010, 07:44:14 PM »
This 15 rupee coin of German East Africa was first issued in 1915, but the image shows a 1916 version. The elephant is depicted in natural surroundings, and the apparent aim is to depict the animal realistically too; however, the artist was not quite skilful enough to achieve this. An arresting image, nevertheless.