The Mint with a Pole – Part 3
Benedetto Pistrucci – Would you mess with him?
Wellesley-Pole’s recruitment of Pistrucci for the Royal Mint in 1815 was both a brave and also deeply unpopular decision. These two firebrands came together under a storm of controversy, yet successfully adopted a classic ‘bunker’ mentality to achieve new heights of numismatic brilliance. Benedetto Pistrucci (1783-1855) was born and educated in Rome. At the age of 15, he was placed with the gem-engraver Nicolo Morelli (1771–1830), whose patrons included the Pope and Emperor Napoleon. His talent for carved cameos was quickly evident as he obtained first prize in sculpture from the drawing academy at Campidoglio. Pistrucci remained in Rome until he was in his forties, producing a combination of portrait cameos and engraved gemstones. Hoping to enhance his reputation further Pistrucci moved to France around 1814. But his arrival coincided with Napoleon’s defeat and exile, so he met the Duke of Wellington and his brother Wellesley-Pole rather than the French Emperor (to whom he had hoped to present a cameo). By the time Wellesley-Pole returned to London to become Master of the Mint, Pistrucci was already there causing ripples of disapproval in artistic circles.
Pistrucci intended this cameo for Napoleon (Paris 1814), but he was ‘Gone Away’
Having spent over a quarter of a century perfecting his skills Pistrucci was supremely confident in his ability and unwilling to reverentially defer to established English artists. In 1815 Pistrucci attended a party at Sir Joseph Banks’ home where a Mr Payne Knight exhibited an engraved gem believed to be an ancient relic, having been purchased some years earlier from Mr Boneli an art dealer from Golden Square. To the astonishment of the assembled guests Pistrucci announced that he had created the gem in his workshop and sold it to Boneli for twenty Roman crowns. This assertion was challenged not only by Boneli (who insisted that Pistrucci had merely polished up an ancient gemstone) but also by several renowned experts present. It was declared that there was ‘no living artist so capable’ as to have manufactured such an item. So Pistrucci offered to make a replica and present it within three months in proof of his claim. He duly delivered a near perfect match, but without the signs of wear and tear evident on the original – and he demanded £50 payment from Payne Knight for his troubles. But Knight refused to pay or to submit both items for independent adjudication.
The ‘Head of Flora’ – which Pistrucci claimed to be his own design
So in some circles Pistrucci found himself labelled a forger and a charlatan trying to extort money from a well-known patron of the arts. But all was not lost for he acquired a vital ally in the form of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Banks was the long-serving President of the Royal Society which had a traditionally paternalistic control over the policies and activities of the Royal Mint. Knowing that Wellesley-Pole was looking for an artist to work on designs for the new coinage Banks introduced Pistrucci – but left the final decision wholly with the Master of the Mint.
Wellesley-Pole looking calm and collected for a change
Wellesley-Pole soon encountered problems when he brought Pistrucci into the Mint. His Italian friend had initially submitted artwork for approval, including the now famous St George and Dragon design. But when chief engraver Thomas Wyon copied Pistrucci’s model he could not match the original. Wellesley-Pole realised he was on to a winner and paid Pistrucci 100 guineas to create the template himself. This caused ill-feeling at the Mint, which worsened after Wyon unexpectedly died. Wellesley-Pole knew no one could replicate Pistrucci’s work, so he backed his man unequivocally. Pistrucci was employed as an engraver for £500 per annum, offering him accommodation at the Mint. Wellesley-Pole acquired Pistrucci’s services on excellent terms considering that the initial contract for 100 guineas only entailed a week’s work. Pistrucci was permitted to augment his pay by carrying out private commissions, and brought his family over from Rome. However he worked up to 18 hours a day at the Mint in these early years, leaving no time for freelance projects. Staff at the Mint resented Pistrucci because he was an alien. Their antipathy lasted decades during which time he was not allowed to be called ‘Chief Engraver’.
On 11th July 1815 Wellesley-Pole invited 12 members at the Royal Academy, including Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Flaxman, and his close friend Joseph Nollekins to submit designs for the Waterloo Medal. The letter clearly stated
This can only be done by the aid of the First Artists belonging to the Royal Academy
John Flaxman (1755-1826) – was not deemed good enough by Wellesley-Pole
But when the Royal Academy nominated Flaxman’s design for the larger Waterloo Medal, Pistrucci refused to copy it, declaring that it went against his artistic principles. Instead he submitted his own proposal which was approved by the Regent. The Regent then asked for his portrait by Lawrence to be copied for the obverse face of the medal. But when Wellesley-Pole went to see him at his studio, Pistrucci had turned Lawrence’s painting to face the wall and pointedly refused to comply even when threatened with dismissal. He said he wanted to create the Regent ‘from life’. It was an awkward situation, for Wellesley-Pole had agreed a fee of £3500 for this commission, £2000 of which had already been paid. Additionally, he was over a barrel regarding the new coinage. Remarkably Wellesley-Pole persuaded the Regent to back down, and Pistrucci got his way. The Royal Society was enraged by the Mint’s rejection of Flaxman and Lawrence’s artwork. A senior British Museum antiquary said ‘a more intimate knowledge of the talent that existed in the Kingdom…would have saved [Wellesley-Pole] from the reproach of unnecessarily insulting the whole body of native artists’.
Pistrucci’s iconic St George & Dragon motif – still in use today. Note his initials (bottom right)
To get some idea of the resentment stirred up by Wellesley-Pole’s appointment and dogged support for Pistrucci you only have to look at the press between 1816 and 1819 where numerous anonymous letters lambasted their partnership. Even though the Great Re-coinage was an unqualified success the barbed comments kept coming. For example the Morning Chronicle of October 29th 1818 stated
The execution of the coin of the Realm…[occurred] through the anti-national bad taste of the Master of the Mint shamefully [working] after the designs of the Italian artist.
Despite Wellesley-Pole’s private marks being very small and subtle he was likened to Cardinal Wolsey
Wellesley-Pole was delighted to discover ‘I am empowered to place such private mark as I choose [on all coin], and I have chosen my initials…WWP’. The press accused him of ‘smuggling his initials’ onto the new sovereign and they were quick to publish his reply: ‘I shall be impeached for putting my initials on the coin of the realm, as Cardinal Wolsey was for placing a cardinal’s hat on the coin of Henry VIII!’ Such was the level of vitriol probably originating from jealous and resentful members of the Royal Academy that Wellesley-Pole was compelled to make a statement in the House of Commons setting the record straight. Pistrucci fared similarly when exercising his right to leave a mark on designs used in the new coins
Pistrucci the artrist who executed the die for the Crown piece is determined that his name shall be transmitted to posterity. It is engraved at full length on both sides of the coin!! For this specimen of vanity and presumption he has no precedent
Reports on the design of the Double-Sovereign in 1819 reveal the depth of animosity against both men
Mr Pistrucci whose happy knack of making strong likenesses is well known to the British public has presented a faithful resemblance of himself in the cavalier… with a melting pot instead of a helmet. In the beast on which he is mounted the public will recognise… the Master of the Mint differing however from the Grecian charger… by a striking addition to the length of his ears… so that the whole figure on the new coin resembles a jack-ass. [In fact] the initials W.W.P are impressed on his hind-quarters… so Englishmen in future ages will not look at the jack-ass without thinking of Mr Pole.
In Pistrucci, Wellesley-Pole found a like-minded character. Both men were hot-headed perfectionists unwilling to compromise in pursuit of their goals. Wellesley-Pole correctly identified Pistrucci as the man to revolutionise British coinage and backed his man to the hilt. But the consequence for both men was an estrangement from the established body of artists, and fellow Mint employees. In fact it was the Mint’s unwillingness to accept Pistrucci as Chief Engraver and their pointed omission of his name from their Red Book that led to the 30+ year delay in Pistrucci delivering the dyes needed to produce the larger Waterloo Medal. Pistrucci complained long and often that he was promised the role of Chief Engraver by Wellesley-Pole and he genuinely feared that the Mint would cast him aside as soon as he was no longer considered essential. So he dragged his heels for decades and by the time the dyes were presented only the Duke of Wellington remained alive of the leaders involved in the Battle of Waterloo.
Though Pistrucci worked at the Mint until 1849, his most productive and inspirational phase was under Wellesley-Pole’s influence and support – between 1815 and 1820. It is fair to say that both men benefitted from each other’s obstinacy and drive for perfection. No one liked them, but luckily for us, they didn’t care because their collaboration produced coins considered to be ‘the finest that had ever been issued in Europe’.
Example of Pistrucci’s earlier cameo work c.1810
Pistrucci was undoubtedly an essential cog in Wellesley-Pole’s machinery at the Mint, but my next part will focus on the incredible logistical achievement of The Great Re-Coinage in 1817…
- Greg Roberts unpublished dissertation ‘The Forgotten Brother’ (2009)
- Billing A., Gems, Jewels and Coins (London: Bell and Daldy, 1867)
- Humphreys H., Gold, Silver and Copper Coins of England (6th Ed, London: Bohn, 1849)
- British Library Add. MSS 39791
- Hayward J., Waterloo- The Medal, www.greatwarhistoricalsociety.com
- Bagot J., George Canning and Friends (London: Murray, 1909)
- Images of Wellesley-Pole marks on coins courtesy of The Royal Mint Museum
In November 2014 it was announced that Pistrucci’s Waterloo Medal had finally been struck, nearly 200 years after Wellesley-Pole commissioned it. The medal was presented to representatives of Britain’s allies at the Battle of Waterloo in a ceremony held at Apsley House, The Duke of Wellington’s London home
Better late then never- Britain’s allies thanked for Waterloo
To find out more about Pistrucci’s Waterloo Medal visit The Royal Mint Museum
Waterloo 200 organisation will produce 500,000 Waterloo Medal replicas as part of events to mark anniversary of Wellington’s victory
For more information Pistrucci’s famous ‘head of flora’ cameo visit the British Museum
Traditionalists will be pleased to see that the Royal Mint are producing a 2015 Sovereign in which Pistrucci’s mark is clearly visible