As the Head of State, the Queen’s head appears on our currency, and a new exhibition looks at how that head was designed for the first coins of the second Elizabethan age.

The designer of the first coins was Mary Gillick, and when her appointment was announced, the choice of a female artist in her seventies garnered great interest from the public. Gillick was thrust into the limelight, with photos of her posing with her design printed in newspapers all over the nation and abroad.

Although her work on the 1952 coin design was her most famous work, she had a career that had already lasted decades working on medals and memorials. Gillick died in 1963, aged 83, and when her niece died in 2004, the family donated her artists collection to the British Museum and the Henry Moore Institute.

The exhibition is in three parts, with a look at her early work, some later work on making medals for the Duke of Edinburgh, but in the centre is a look at the huge plaster casts made for the first coin to carry the current Queen’s image. The plaster casts were made for the coins, and then the design was reduced down to coin-sized by the Royal Mint. Putting the huge plaster casts on displays lets us get a very close up view of the design that’s usually a tiny roundel in our palms.

Gillick’s portrait of The Queen combined modern design with Italian Renaissance influences, building on her experience as a medal maker. A female artist bringing a modern style to traditional coinage was hailed by many as a fitting start to The Queen’s reign.

Her design remained in circulation on coins in the UK right up to the 1990s.

The exhibition, Mary Gillick: modelling The Queen’s portrait is at the British Museum until 31st July. It’s free to visit, and you can find it in Room 3, which is right next to the main entrance.

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