History Through Coins: The Changing Face of Her Majesty

Posted on 6/9/2020

Collectors have followed Elizabeth II’s progression from newly crowned youth to great-grandmother.

The United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II has reigned since 1952, an epic span that ultimately exceeded even that of her great-great-grandmother, Victoria (1837-1901).

While The Royal Mint delayed any portrayal of Victoria’s aging process for decades, it has become more responsive to Elizabeth’s maturation process. Coin collectors are the richer for this.

There have been five different portraits featured on the regular-issue UK coins. Additional variations of these have appeared solely on the coins of Britain’s former colonies and current members of its Commonwealth, while other portraits and full-length figures have been utilized for commemorative pieces.

This study, however, will focus on the five “definitive” portraits seen daily by residents of the UK for nearly 70 years.

Princess Elizabeth was the older of two children (both daughters) born to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Though her actual birth date is April 21, in one of the many curious traditions so peculiar to the British monarchy, her official birthday is celebrated in June! She was married to Prince Philip Mountbatten of Greece and Denmark in 1947.

As her father’s health was starting to decline around this time, Elizabeth began undertaking some of his royal obligations. She and Prince Philip had just left for a tour of Australia and New Zealand, having gotten only as far as Kenya, when the king succumbed to lung cancer February 6, 1952 at the age of only 66.

In keeping with tradition, Elizabeth’s coronation would not be performed until the calendar year following the late king’s death, and all domestic, imperial and commonwealth coins carried George VI’s portrait and titles through the end of 1952. The new queen’s coronation on June 2, 1953 was heralded by the press as the beginning of a new “Elizabethan Age.” This is in reference to the glorious reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), a time of prosperity and expansion of England’s reach in the world. Such hope for the future was sorely needed in 1953, as World War II had left the country quite depleted, with rationing and bombed-out buildings still plainly in evidence.

The first portrait of the new queen was designed by sculptor Mary Gaskell Gillick (1881-1965), whose work was selected from among 17 entries. Her initials MG are placed at the truncation of Elizabeth’s neck, though they often are difficult to see except on sharply struck coins. The Gillick bust shows the queen as a youthful, almost childlike person. Unlike all later portraits, she is bare headed, with a laurel wreath as her only crown. This is tied behind Elizabeth’s head, and the whole ensemble is quite reminiscent of the early coins of Victoria, which likely was the artist’s intention.

Though pennies were coined with Elizabeth’s portrait during 1952, all bore the date of Elizabeth’s coronation, 1953. The nation was then still working down its large existing supply of pennies coined during and after the war years, so only 1,308,400 of the new type were struck for general circulation. This figure was deemed large enough to meet the popular, worldwide demand for souvenirs of the new queen, and no additional pennies were coined for circulation until 1961!

As it is, the 1953 coins turned out to be the only ones of Elizabeth’s reign to carry the abbreviated title BRITT OMN (of all the Britons), a reference to Britain’s rapidly declining empire. As these former colonies gained their independence, the claim to empire on the nation’s coins was omitted after 1953.

1953 Penny, NGC MS 65 RB
Click images to enlarge.

The Gillick portrait was replaced by more mature images starting in the 1960s, yet it survives to the present day on the Royal Maundy coinage. This emission of tiny silver coins is presented to worthy Britons by the queen each Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.

The coins are presented within a small purse containing a quantity of coins that advances annually with respect to the monarch’s age. The coins— silver pennies, twopence, threepence and fourpence—are highly prized by their original recipients and eagerly sought by numismatists when they become available. Note how the mechanical reduction to such a tiny size has left Elizabeth’s bust nearly featureless. Also significant is the absence of the title BRITT OMN.

2008 Silver Maundy Penny, NGC MS 69
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As Elizabeth II approached her 40th birthday, sculptor Arnold Machin (1911-99) created a new, more regal bust of the queen in 1964. No longer bare-headed, she wears a tiara of pearls and precious stones that had been a gift from her grandmother, Queen Mary (1867-1953). This bust would not appear on Britain’s coinage until 1968, when it was introduced to the UK with a new series of decimal coins that would soon displace the old sterling issues. In Canada, however, this portrait was adopted as early as 1965, and it is seen here on a commemorative dollar from 1970.

1970 Canada Manitoba Centennial Dollar, NGC MS 67
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The Machin portrait was employed for 20 years, but its still-youthful face of the queen became obsolete as the Elizabeth neared 60. The new bust was the work of Raphael David Maklouf (1937-), whose initials appear at its truncation. Born in Jerusalem, Maklouf immigrated to Britain with his parents after World War II. His design was approved August 8, 1984 and debuted with the following year’s coinage. The bust is more closely truncated than on previous issues, allowing for a larger depiction of the queen’s head. She wears the Royal Diadem, traditional garb for the State Opening of Parliament.

1992 Piefort Silver 50 Pence, European Union Council Presidency, NGC PF 69 Ultra Cameo
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Ian Rank-Broadley (1952-) became the next artist to see his work appear on the coin of the realm, when he won a 1997 competition sponsored by The Royal Mint. His portrait of Queen Elizabeth debuted with the following year’s coinage. Extending the shift started by Maklouf, the new image was not a bust at all but simply a head of the queen.

The original “new pence” coinage that began in 1968 had to conform to several existing sterling denominations until the latter were finally demonetized.

Thereafter, coins such as the 5 Pence and 10 Pence pieces were greatly reduced in size, and this required a portrait of the queen that would more fully fill their smaller diameters. Elizabeth II is again wearing the tiara last seen in the Machin bust of 30 years previous. The artist’s initials appear below the queen’s portrait, it being in too low a relief to permit their inclusion on the neck truncation.

1998 Penny, NGC PF 70 RD Ultra Cameo
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Since 2015 the coinage of the United Kingdom has featured a mature head of Queen Elizabeth II designed by one of The Royal Mint’s own staff artists, the first such instance since Victoria’s time. Only 33 at the time his submission was selected, Jody Clark (1981-) was the youngest of the various artists whose portraits of the queen have graced the nation’s coinage.

As with the previous issue, Clark’s initials have been placed below Elizabeth’s head, though it appears that they could have been incused into the truncation had The Royal Mint desired. The queen is once again adorned in the Royal Diadem and drop-pearl earrings, making this portrait somewhat reminiscent of the earlier Maklouf design.

2020 Gold 100 Pounds, Year of the Rat, NGC PF 70 Ultra Cameo
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