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Toward A More Beautiful Coinage

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In the Classic Commemorative series I feel it's important to share the designer's and sculptors' behind the series also. Some of them were the best that this country has produced.


John Howard Benson along with Arthur Graham Carey did the design work on the Rhode Island half dollar.



Image courtesy of "The San Diego Collection."



Here are John Howard Benson's thoughts "Toward A More Beautiful Coinage:"




John Howard Benson


Coins may be thought of as things to be collected, or they may be thought of as things to be made. This paper deals with coins considered as things to be made, that is, from the point of view of the practical artist.


It seems a generally accepted opinion that the majority of ancient coins are more beautiful than the majority of modern ones. How is this explained? Is it that modern coin designers do not try to make their work beautiful? No. It is probable that they try for beauty much harder than did their predecessors. Is it that modern men are potentially inferior as artists to ancient men? We see no reason to accept this pessimistic view. Is it that the modern designer must conform to certain mechanical conditions unknown to the ancients, such as that his coins must be perfectly round, much stack, etc.? Again, no. Such conditions, if intelligently accepted, are only the limits within which any artist must do his work, and such conditions are no more to be made an excuse for bad coins than the fact that the poet is limited to fourteen lines can be made an excuse for a bad sonnet.


We believe that the answer is much simpler than any of these. It is that the majority of designers of coins have not intelligently studied their job. Coins are struck from dies. Dies are made by the art of the die sinker. Every art differs from every other art. Die-sinking differs from every other art. Knowledge of this art is only gained from a study and practice of it, not from the study and practice of other arts, even though these may be in some ways similar.



The John Stevens Shop (Benson’s) in Newport, Rhode Island which has been in continuous existence as a stone-cutting shop since 1705, and in the present building on Thames Street since the Revolution.


Our insuccess has come about through the dividing up of the art of making coins between two men, or sets of men, when the whole process should be controlled by a single mind. The formal part of the problem is taken care of by “artists” who know nothing, and often apparently desire to know nothing, about technique. And the technical part of the problem is taken care of by technicians who have no formal training – cannot, or think they cannot, design. The two men do not know enough of each other’s problems to be able to work together in harmony, however much they may desire to do so. The difficulty is that the artist has been cut in two, as it were, and that the two half-artists, one interested and instructed only in form, and the other only in technique, are trying to do the work of a single integrated man. The difficulty can be solved either by educating the technician formally, or by educating the designer technically.


Now because the designing of coins today in the hands of the “artist,” the practical problem is his technical education. Let us, therefore, turn to the libraries of books which describe ancient coins and see what they have to tell us about technique. But we find that these libraries are not of much help to us, because they are written by collectors and for collectors and about the things collectors are interested in, and not about the things artists are interested in. In Hill’s book there is a chapter upon the technique of ancient die-sinker, but it is far from satisfactory as a guide to anyone who would make coins by a method similar to that employed by the ancients.



A memorial figure, photographed in the John Stevens Shop (Benson’s). In its manner there is an interesting synthesis of modern feeling and Medievalism.


This general neglect of the technical aspect of the problems of coin design is exemplified also in the actions of those committees who are charged with the duty of selecting designs. So intelligent a man as Mr. W. B. Yeats, for instance, the chairman of the committee which selected the designs for the new coinage of the Irish Free State, says in his committee report that he sent photographs of certain Greek coins to the competing artists, suggesting that the committee thought them very beautiful and wanted something of the same sort. It never seems to have occurred even to Mr. Yeats that the method by which the Greek coins were produced, the nature of the art of which they were the result, might have had something to do with their perfection and beauty. Beauty is not something which an artist plasters onto the exterior of an otherwise unbeautiful object; but is a manifestation of an object’s own inner rightness and perfection, something that comes from within.


An attempt to reform the art of present-day coin making must, therefore, start with a realistic analysis. What is a coin? What is its purpose? Of what materials is it fabricated? What are the instruments by which these materials are changed from their raw into their ultimate state? What part has the human imagination to play in the affair? Let us take up these questions separately.


What is the purpose or function of a coin? A coin is a unit of currency. It must resist wear and corrosion in order to be current as long as possible. It must be small so that it can be carried in a small space. It must bear emblems or legends, or both, which fix its value, and at the same time insure its official authenticity. Because all coins must be small, many coins must be of precious materials. Coins of precious materials must be protected from “clipping” by making them perfectly round, and finishing the edge with “milling” or some similar continuous pattern. Coins in order to stack must not be thicker in any part than they are at their edges.


You'll need to read my book, for the rest of the story. ;)




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