Britannia banished as coins get a makeover

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In the biggest change to coinage since decimalisation, new designs were introduced yesterday that form a jigsaw-like image of heraldic symbols when the various denominations are laid out next to each other.

When correctly assembled the "tails" sides of six coins from 1p to 50p form an image of the royal coat of arms, carrying the symbols of the nations of the UK.

Each denomination carries parts of two sets of three lions passant guardant, the Scottish lion rampant and the harp of Ireland. The new £1 coin carries the complete image.

The coins, the heads sides of which retain the 1998 portrait of the Queen by Ian Rank-Broadley, are believed to be the first in the world designed to form a unified picture when put together.

None of the new coins carries the ancient symbol of Britannia, who has guarded the nation's currency for 1,000 years but who may return on one-off commemorations for special events.

Other symbols heading for the smelter of numismatic history are the portcullis and chains (1p); ostrich feathers (2p), thistle (5p), lion (10p), rose (20p). Britannia appeared on the old 50p.

Matthew Dent, a 26-year-old designer from Bangor, north Wales, designed the reverses after winning a competition launched by the Royal Mint in 2005. It is the most significant redesign of the country's coins since 1968.

If some of the other 4,000 designs pitted against Dent's work had been chosen, the new sides of the 1p, 2p, 5p, 10, and 50p might have been a Spitfire, a DNA double helix, fish and chips or a pint of beer.

Entrants were given a free hand to come up with ideas but were advised to consider heraldic motifs and themes. Mr Dent, whose winning idea earned him £35,000, explained: "I felt the solution to the Royal Mint's brief lay in a united design. The idea of a landscape appealed to me – perhaps this landscape could stretch off the edge of one coin and appear on the edge of another. Then I decided to look at heraldry." Speaking at the launch at the Tower of London, the historic home of the Royal Mint, Mr Dent said: "I would love it if the coins are played with by everyone from kids at school to folks in a pub."

More than one billion of the new coins will be minted every year, making them the most common art in the country. The 27 billion UK coins in circulation will remain legal tender, being replaced when they are either lost or become worn out.

Andrew Stafford, chief executive of the Royal Mint, said: "It is the only work of art that every member of the general public touches every day, that is important to the nation's way of life."

Sir Christopher Frayling, chairman of the design board, which picked out the design from among those from 500 entrants, said: "I think these designs will become a classic in the history of coin design."

He added: "Every designer's dream is to make an impact on people's lives and Matthew Dent has achieved this at a very early stage of his career."

Heads or tails, history wins

*Coins tend to be changed when a monarch dies but, after 56 years of the Queen's reign, the Royal Mint decided its metallic art had been "around a long time".

Like the existing set, the new coins will be made of copper-plated steel for the coppers and cupro-nickel for the silver. The main image, the obverse, will remain the image of the Queen engraved by Ian Rank-Broadley in 1998.

Unlike the existing coins, though, the reverse will not feature different historical symbols but fragments of a single picture.

"You have the royal portrait on one side and a symbol of the nation on the other," said Sir Christopher Frayling, who chose the design. "It is not a political coin."

But currency is almost always "political". In retaining an image of the Queen on the "heads" and royal heraldry on the "tails", the coins do not take account of declining trust in the monarchy – or countenance a future of euros. Nor do they acknowledge a wider Britishness by reflecting the diversity of the United Kingdom's landscape, wildlife, languages, religions or culture.

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