O’Brien Coin Guide: Albert Power’s Irish Coin Designs (1927)


Introduction:

In 1922 Ireland won its independence from Britain and, after the initial distraction of a civil war, the country began to move on and set about its primary task of nation-building. The process that followed was difficult and divisive and one of the things deemed essential for the new state was its own currency. On 13th April 1926, the Coinage Act of 1926 became law :-

  • empowering the Minister for Finance to provide and issue coins
  • the Act also prescribed the denominations, metal alloys and weights of the coins

This Act did not, however, determine their designs: it left the choice of designs to the Minister for Finance and gave him power to prescribe the designs by Order.

  • Two TDs, Michael R.T. Heffernan and Osmond Grattan Esmonde, suggested setting up a special committee of persons with artistic knowledge to advise on the designs.
  • Senator W. B. Yeats proposed a competent artistic committee for this purpose.

The Minister for Finance agreed and set up a 5-man committee:

  • Senator W.B. Yeats, who was asked to act as Chairman of the Committee
  • Mr. Dermod O’Brien, President of the Royal Hibernian Academy
  • Mr. Lucius O’Callaghan, at that time Director of the National Gallery
  • Mr. Thomas Bodkin, one of the Governors of the National Gallery
  • Mr. Barry M. Egan, a member of Dáil Eireann for the City of Cork.

With both politics and society still polarised by the Civil War agenda, the competition, its participants and the design proposals were always going to be controversial and would attract criticism from some very embittered, but still influential people.  The committee would have to tread carefully.

The first meeting of the Committee was held on the 17th June, 1926, and was attended by Mr. Joseph Brennan, at that time Secretary to the Department of Finance and later Chairman of the Currency Commission.  Mr. Brennan said that he “wished to convey to the Committee three provisional decisions which had been arrived at by the Minister for Finance in regard to the coins, but which were not to be regarded as the final decisions of the Minister or the Government, or as binding on the Committee.”

These three conditions were :-

  • That a harp should be shown on one side of the majority of the coins, if not on all.
  • That the inscription should be in Irish only.  He also suggested “they consider the utility of having the denomination of the coin shown by means of a numeral, for the assistance of persons unfamiliar with Irish.”
  • That no effigies of modern persons should be included in the designs.
    • This, last proviso, caused a lot of controversy since those executed or killed in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and the then very recent Irish Civil War, were being elevated to ‘cult hero’ status by their followers and this was doing little to unite the people of the newly formed Irish Free State.

Having taken on board the three requisites above, the committee sought advice from far and wide. After much internal debate and deliberation, Yeats declared that they

decided upon birds and beasts, the artist, the experience of centuries has shown, might achieve a masterpiece, and might, or so it seemed to use, please those that would look longer at each coin than anybody else, artists and children. Besides, what better symbols could we find for this horse riding, salmon fishing, cattle raising country?

In the end, the committee decided upon the following subjects for the reverse designs :-

  • HALF-CROWN: Horse
  • FLORIN: Salmon
  • SHILLING: Bull
  • SIXPENCE: Wolfhound
  • THREEPENCE: Hare
  • PENNY: Hen, possibly with chickens
  • HALFPENNY: Pig, or a Goat/Sheep (added later)
  • FARTHING: Woodcock

The next controversy would be “who to invite to compete?”

  • How should the Government choose its artist?
  • What advice should be give?
  • It should reject a competition open to everybody.
  • They thought seven would be enough, and that three should be Irish.

In the end, they chose two Dublin sculptors of repute (Albert Power and Oliver Sheppard) and Jerome Connor (who had recently arrived in Ireland from New York.  The next part was more difficult as they had little knowledge of the ‘foreign’ talent. Like the Irish contenders, not everyone accepted the invitation and they eventually shortlisted the following :-

  • the great Swedish sculptor Carl Milles
  • Publio Morbiducci, designer of an Italian coin with the Fascist emblem
  • the American sculptor, Paul Manship, the creator of a Diana and her dogs
  • a little known sculptor, Percy Metcalfe (recommended by the Secretary of the British School in Rome)

Albert Power’s Background:

Albert George Power (16 November 1881 – 1945) was an Irish sculptor in the academic realist style. He was born at No.8 Barrack Street (now Benburb Street) in Dublin on 16 November 1881. As a child he played in local clay brickyards and sculpted busts of his friends. He became an apprentice to the family of renowned Irish sculptor Edward Smyth. Power was considered the leading Irish sculptor of the 1920s and 1930s. He was an Irish nationalist and promoted the use of Irish materials.

At the tender age of 13 years, Power began classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now the National College of Art & Design), where he picked up important figure-drawing and other fine art skills from William Orpen –  He also worked under the tutilage of the sculptors John Hughes (1865-1941) and Oliver Sheppard (1865-1941).

  • Power won numerous awards while studying at Dublin Metropolitan School of Art
    • From 1906, the 25 year old Power began exhibiting his work at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) annual exhibitions
    • He also showed at the Oireachtas, the Gaelic League, the Irish Art Companions and the Arts and Crafts Society
      • In 1911, he won the RHA’s gold medal for sculpture
      • He was subsequently elected an Associate member of the RHA
  • Upon completing his apprenticeship, he took up a part-time teaching post at the school
    • Here, he built up a network of contacts via Orpen and Sheppard
    • He also absorbed the ethos of the new ‘Irish art’ movement
      • via the school’s involvement with the Celtic Revival
      • via the wider mood of nationalism then prevalent
  • In 1912, Power set up his own stone sculpture business
    • He took on many commissions during the restoration Dublin’s city centre in the aftermath of the highly destructive 1916 Easter Rising
      • Relief sculpture for the Munster & Leinster Bank in O’Connell Street
    • His work was particularly popular among the nationalist community
      • He received commissions for bronze busts of the new Irish President, Arthur Griffiths, and the army chief Michael Collins.
      • He also completed death-masks for both men which were added to the Cenotaph on Leinster Lawn next to Dail Eireann.
      • He then went on to create the Queen Tailte statuette for the Tailteann Games
  • He is, perhaps, best remembered for:
    • A bronze sculpture of WB Yeats
    • A marble portrait of the Irish martyr and Lord Mayor of Cork Terence McSwiney: a job which Power began during a trip to see the dying McSwiney on hunger-strike at Brixton Jail, in London
    • The sculpture memorial to the Gaelic writer Padraic O’Conaire (Eyre Square, Galway)
    • The pikeman memorial (unveiled in Tralee, County Kerry, by Maud Gonne McBride) for those who died in the 1798 Rebellion
    • The Sean MacDiarmada memorial for Kiltyclogher in County Leitrim
    • The Madonna and Child (All Hallows College, Drumcondra), a memorial to Dublin Archbishop Walsh
    • Architectural sculpture for the Cathedral of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath

Albert Power’s Irish Coin Designs:

Irish Coin Design Competition 1927: Albert Power Designs

Irish Coin Design Competition 1927: Albert Power Designs

Albert Power put forward an obverse design (Irish Harp) and three reverse designs: namely a farthing, threepence and florin design. Modern reproductions (3-D prints) of his original plaster cast models can be seen at The Central Bank of Ireland’s wonderful Irish Coins exhibit at their new headquarters on Dublin’s North Wall Quay.

  • The name of the exhibit is: “Pounds, Shillings & Independence
    • This exhibition celebrates the work of the Currency Commission, which was established in 1927 to design, issue, manage and control an entirely new and independent Irish currency.
    • According to the Central Bank of Ireland’s publicity material:
      • Visitors can learn how a uniquely Irish economic situation lead to the development of two separate sets of banknotes – the Ploughman’s series of notes and the Series A Banknotes – each with a unique design.
      • The exhibition also takes visitors on a journey through the development of the first Irish coinage, the Saorstát pound, whose designs are still renowned for their distinctive artistic qualities.

During the 1930s, Power’s sculptural expertise was called upon by both independent republican organizations and the Irish Goverment to commemorate their chosen heroes.

  • Commissions included:
    • A bronze bust of Cathal Brugha
    • A plaster bust of Eamon de Valera

By the late 1930s he was arguably the greatest (living) sculptor in Ireland.

  • In 1940, he joined the Art Advisory Committee at the Municipal Gallery, and was appointed to the board of the National Gallery of Ireland
  • In 1944, he joined Jack B Yeats and Dermod O’Brien as a member of the selection committee for the Oireachtas Art Exhibition
  • A year later, after a work-related accident, he died

 


Further Reading:

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