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Medals that break the mould: Any artist who can create contemporary designs in the face of our dull tradition of commemoratives deserves a medal (CORRECTED)

John Windsor
Friday 26 August 1994 23:02 BST


The director of the French Mint, Pierre Dehaye, embraced Ronald Searle, the British cartoonist, and commissioned him to make a medal commemorating Admiral Lord Nelson, who defeated the French at Waterloo.

Anthony Garratt, deputy master of our Royal Mint, recoiled from Ian Rank- Broadley, the British sculptor, and summoned a guard to escort him from the building. Mr Rank-Broadley had said much of the Mint's output of coins and medals was 'rubbish aesthetically'.

In continental Europe, the 'contemporary art medal' is an innovative and popular art form, perpetuating the Renaissance urge to commemorate and celebrate. In Britain, medals are still associated with the monarchy, the approval of the state, and institutions.

Mr Searle, who has lived in France for the past 20 years, endeared himself to Mr Dehaye and the crustier members of the Club Francais de la Medaille, by sculpting Nelson as if he had been at the grog - bulbous nose, cock-eyed hat and drooping eyelids.

Mr Rank-Broadley, whose medals show a passion for the undraped human figure, never did endear himself to Mr Garratt. His plate-sized medal Seduction of Man, featuring 'endless frenzied coupling', was his contribution to Fidem XXIII, the biennial international medal exhibition, held in London two years ago. Another design, with an ejaculating phallus symbolising the war in Bosnia, was unplaced in last year's annual unity medal competition sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.

French medal design had a controversial revival in the Sixties when the French Mint, worried by the dwindling popularity of its agricultural prize medals and other traditional fare, commissioned Roger Bezombes, a Dadaist-surrealist, to jazz up its designs. He set cafe intellectuals abuzz by coining the expression objet medaille, his creations being more object than medal. The French Mint never looked back: it was soon turning out up to 200 new issues a year.

The Royal Mint, ever disdainful of such pandering to the populace, was nevertheless forced into the commemorative medal market in the Seventies when the American Franklin Mint cheekily launched mail-order British commemorative medals in this country.

At the time, the British medal was suffering a 40-year eclipse. The stick-like human forms of Germaine Richier and Alberto Giacometti, breaking the conventions of figure modelling, helped to break the mould of medal design on the Continent - but had the opposite effect in Britain, where sculptors abandoned the medal as an outmoded medium.

It is in Eastern Europe - Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria - that the conventional constraints of medal-making have been exploded most dramatically. Since the Seventies, medals have been made there that are neither round nor two- sided, nor made of metal. Child of Venus (1980) by the Hungarian medallist Maria Lugossy is an abstract ovoid made from glass, mercury and a steel ball. Janos Kalmar's latest work is an array of 10 pieces of jagged iron and silver like shards from a smashed machine.

In Britain, the art of the medal is kept alive mainly by a medal-publishing venture, the British Art Medal Society (Bams), co-founded by Mark Jones, now director of the National Museums of Scotland, and supported by the British Museum, where it is based. Since its foundation in 1962, the society has commissioned more than 100 limited-edition medals.

Terence Mullaly, the president of Bams, defines the contemporary medal simply as 'an object capable of being held in the hand'. But Bams medallists have not yet lurched into the abstract and conceptual. They seem poised uneasily between the lucrative cross-over market - collectable cats, golf, Scouts, transport - and the temptation to go Hungarian.

In 1987, when Danuta Solowiej- Wedderburn, a 32-year-old Polish medallist, settled in this country with her English husband, she asked Mr Jones how she could continue the medallist's training she had received at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art. She was told there were no medal-making courses at British art colleges. But she was offered a 'staff attachment' to Professor David Watkins, who holds medal seminars at the Royal College of Art.

Putting the finishing touches to a sand mould, the most ancient casting method, at her King's Cross studio in London, she said: 'At academies in Poland, every sculpture student makes medals as part of the course. But here, the experimental medal is practically unknown. I do not even see them in exhibitions like the Royal Academy summer show. There is simply no training for it. But once you start students on it, they love it.'

The Royal Mint, the British Museum and the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths are now funding a tuition project at the Royal College of Art that has thrown up some unusual shapes in stone, glass, wax, even soap. There is also an annual bursary funded by the Royal Society of British Sculptors.

Ms Solowiej-Wedderburn's medal Greetings from King's Cross is selling for pounds 62 to Bams' 350 members in an edition open for 18 months and limited to 100. A one-off medal by Lugossy can cost around pounds 600.

At auction, where contemporary medals occasionally creep into numismatic or sculpture sales, the only serious competitor of the private collector is Howard Simmons, a London medal dealer. At Sotheby's last year, he paid pounds 120 for a collection of 80 American art medals from the Thirties to the Sixties. They were estimated at pounds 400- pounds 600. He sold them in the States for more than pounds 1,000.

The only British contemporary art medal that has fetched a respectable price at auction is Diamond, a 1983 Bams issue by the sculptor Lynn Chadwick of a figure with characteristic geometric head. One made pounds 495 at Christie's in 1988. It cost pounds 2 new.

Paul Connor, a hotelier in Wymondham, Norfolk, has a collection of 300 contemporary art medals and says he knows only 10 other 'serious' collectors. He prefers it that way. 'I got tired of collecting coins - buying from a catalogue of die varieties that someone else has had the fun of researching. With medals you get to meet the artists: it's as if it's all happening around you.' He has published a paper in Medal, the Bams journal, on Jane McAdam, sculptor of the first Bams medal, Picasso, who became an engraver at the Royal Mint.

As British art medals break the bounds of conventional circularity, their future design depends to some extent on the curious circularity of the politics that lurk behind medal-making. Mr Jones, who co-founded Bams at a time when the Royal Mint seemed incapable of contributing to the evolution of the medal, has this year been invited on to the Mint's advisory committee.

It was Mr Rank-Broadley who pressed Roger de L Holmes, the present deputy master of the Royal Mint, to appoint Mr Jones to the committee, together with Philomena Davidson Davis, first woman president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. Mr Rank-Broadley is secretary of a pressure group whose founding is testimony to the widespread frustration over poor coin and medal design felt by sculptors and designers.

Four years ago the Society of Numismatic Artists and Designers was co- founded by the late Christopher Ironside, designer of most of our decimal coinage, and Philip Nathan, sculptor and coin designer. They thought the Mint's advisory committee was ill-informed, but, even today, their request for a coin designer to join it has still not been accepted.

Mr Jones said he thought coin and medal design in Britain was at about the same stage as it had been in 15th-century Italy, when the coinage was flat and medals were becoming increasingly sculptural under the influence of Pisanello. He said there were strong commercial pressures today to keep coins cheap and flat because they were worth no more than the sixpences and shillings of Victorian times. The only way towards better coin and medal design, he said, was to attract young designers.

So far, the only well-known contemporary British sculptors to have designed medals are Henry Moore (unpublished, for Chichester Cathedral), and (all for Bams) Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, John Maine, Michael Sandle and Ian Rank-Broadley.

Mr Rank-Broadley will consider carefully any request from the Royal Mint for coin or medal designs incorporating phalluses. He has designed one side of this year's Royal Mint medal commemorating the centenary of Tower Bridge (without phallus). His Bams medal, Prisoner of Conscience, showing a striding, well-endowed male nude, was cast by - the Royal Mint. Perhaps the Mint is more willing to embrace Mr Rank- Broadley than it might appear.

Bams, annual membership pounds 15, Medal annual subscription pounds 20, both: c/o Department of Coins and Medals, British Museum, London WC1B 3DG. The Royal Mint Coin Club, PO Box 500, Cardiff CF1 1HA. Simmons and Simmons, PO Box 104, Leytonstone, London E11 1ND (081-989 8097).

Answer to the storyteller's riddle of the nightmare (last week): 'Wake up]'


There were transmission errors in last week's column. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths' medal competition is the Humanity; Bams was founded in 1982; and Lynn Chadwick's Bams medal cost pounds 25 new. The description of Nelson as the victor of Waterloo was due to a transmission error in my brain.

(Photograph omitted)

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