If the many thousands of coin collectors in the United Kingdom were asked to nominate the three finest engravers ever to produce designs for the home coinage it is likely that William Wyon would find a place on everyone’s list. In his prolific output between 1816 and 1851 there is much to admire: the Three Graces pattern crown of 1817, the seated Britannia of the 1820s, the Lion sixpence and shillings of George IV, and a regal Una and the Lion on the famous five-pound piece of 1839. These are, all of them, designs of charm and distinction, but they do not by themselves explain why Wyon’s contemporaries, who elected him to the Royal Academy, held him in high regard nor why modern numismatists cherish his memory with such affection. His enduring reputation rests rather on his coin and medal portraits of Queen Victoria.
They begin early, for the Queen first sat for him as a young Princess of thirteen and he produced a medallic portrait for her eighteenth birthday. This was followed by a portrait in lower relief for the new Queen’s coins, which began to find their way into circulation in the summer of 1838, and by a diademed portrait for a medal commemorating the Queen’s visit to the City of London in November 1837, a portrait better remembered now as that used for the Penny Black stamps of 1840. In 1847 came a crowned bust in fashionable Gothic style, adopted for the proof crowns of that year and, later, for the controversial florins of 1849.
About the same time another diademed portrait was prepared for campaign and general service medals, and finally, shortly before his death, he completed conjoint portraits of the Queen and the Prince Consort for Great Exhibition medals of 1851. Of these portraits, that approved for the coinage in 1838 undoubtedly takes pride of place. Wyon was clearly inspired by his admiration of the neo-classical style of his mentor Flaxman to create an uncluttered and well-balanced portrait. Now familiarly known as the Young Head, its beautiful features flattered the Queen, who was a grandmother in her late sixties before she allowed it to disappear from the coinage. “You always represent me favorably”, she is reported to have told Wyon, while he, for his part, is said to have found the Queen an excellent sitter. His skill in portraiture was not of course restricted to representations of Queen Victoria. He it was who engraved coinage portraits of George IV and William IV, though these were not entirely his own work since they were based on busts by the sculptor Chantrey.
Many medallic Portraits, both private and official, also testify to his genius and his head of Queen Adelaide for the Coronation Medial of 1811 was additionally remarkable for the unaccustomed speed with which it was finished So established was his reputation that he was commissioned to prepare a portrait of Queen Maria II for the coinage of Portugal, not the easiest of tasks if the Queen really was as plain as William IV ungallantly insisted. It seems scarcely credible, given the precocity of his talent, that there should ever have been doubts about his ability and that a Master of the Mint, no less, should have advised him not to waste his time attempting to do heads. Perhaps these doubts were created by a modesty of manner so unlike the egotistical assertiveness of his great rival Benedetto Pisirucci but, whatever their cause, they were quickly dispelled by an output of coins and medals that remains truly remarkable.