O’Brien Coin Guide: Carl Milles’ 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)

Milles’ Background:

Carl Milles, sculptor (23 June 1875 – 19 September 1955) was born in Lagga, Sweden. He was married to artist Olga Milles and brother to Ruth Milles and half brother to the architect Evert Milles.

In 1897, Milles secured a job as a manager of a school of gymnastics in Chile. Back then, this trip involved a mixture of rail journeys across land and a series of sea voyages via ship. While in Paris, he began to study art, working in Auguste Rodin’s studio and slowly gaining recognition as a sculptor. He quickly forgot about Chile and remained in Paris for seven years. In 1904 he (and his wife Olga) moved to Munich.

Two years later they settled in Sweden, buying property on Herserud Cliff on Lidingö, a large island near Stockholm. Millesgården was built there between 1906 and 1908 as the sculptor’s private residence and workspace. It was turned into a foundation and donated to the Swedish people in 1936. Among his more famed works are:

  • the Poseidon statue in Gothenburg
  • the Gustaf Vasa statue at the Nordiska museet
  • the Orfeus group outside the Stockholm Concert Halland
  • the Folke Filbyter sculpture in Linköping.

Some of his works are truly remarkable and he is, perhaps, best known for his unusual waterside installations and his spectacular water fountains.

Two different views of "God the Father on the Arch of Heaven" - a 23 meter high sculpture and water feature by Carl Milles. Nacka Strand, Stockholm

Two different views of “God the Father on the Arch of Heaven” – a 23 meter high sculpture and water feature by Carl Milles. Nacka Strand, Stockholm

Milles’ Irish Coin Designs:

Carl Milles' designs for the 1927 Irish Coin Design Competition.

Carl Milles’ designs for the 1927 Irish Coin Design Competition.

Milles put forward eight reverse designs: namely a farthing, halfpenny, penny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin and halfcrown design, i.e. the full set of Irish coins. 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.

 

 


Further Reading:

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