London in 1666 was very different to the city we know today. Wooden structures rather than soaring skyscrapers made up most of the homes and businesses in the capital, one of the main reasons why a small fire, which notoriously began in a bakery in Pudding Lane, went on to rage across the city. Can you imagine the sight; people fleeing the flames, leaving everything to the fire? Aaron West, a member of The Royal Mint’s design team, has taken the perspective of one of the Londoners seeking sanctuary on the Thames to capture the devastating scene.
The Royal Mint’s home at the time of the fire was at the Tower of London. As one of the few secure stone buildings in the city, it became a sanctuary for the displaced and the homeless. For a time, it was also a safehold for many of the city’s valuables, as people and businesses were allowed to store their assets within its walls. As the fire drew nearer, people became fearful that the Tower’s stores of gunpowder would explode and so these were removed by Sir John Robinson, the Tower’s Lieutenant. As the flames made steady progress through the city, action to save the building had to be taken. The goldsmith’s treasures were removed from the Tower and controlled explosions were made that brought down buildings in the path of the fire, starving it of fuel and saving the Tower from the flames.
This year we join many others in remembering the fire that changed London forever, with the 350th anniversary marked on a £2 coin. Ahead of the anniversary this weekend, we caught up with Aaron West, designer of the 2016 Great Fire of London £2, to find out a little more about his design…
Please introduce yourself
My name is Aaron West, I’m 29 years old and I work in the design department at The Royal Mint as a graphic designer.
How did your journey with The Royal Mint begin?
I started working at The Royal Mint about five and a half years ago, designing product packaging and marketing material. Whilst working here I have been given the opportunity to enter coin design competitions and having entered around eight, the Great Fire of London is my first coin design to make it all the way.
How does coin design differ from your other work?
A lot of the designs we do in graphics are flat, so doing the coin competition is challenging really as it not what I am used to. The challenge for me was trying to get relief in the coin right, so that the coin has depth. It required working quite closely with The Royal Mint’s engraving team to ensure that I got the best finish on the coin.
How did you feel about designing the coin to mark this significant anniversary / event?
It’s really special to have designed something that marks a historical event, it’s such a well known story, an event that children are continuing to learn in school; so yeah, it’s a great feeling.
How did you go about designing this coin?
I began with the skyline of London, looking at the ‘then and now’, to create the design’s central point. Then I tackled the water, scattered with the riverboats that people relied on for safety during the fire – the whole scene is viewed as if from one of these boats, gazing back at the chaos on the shore. Then, once these were in place I looked at the fire itself and started designing the flames and the smoke.
There’s a lot to get into the design, so breaking the elements of the design down was easier than just trying to tackle it all in one go. I started each section with a few sketches, picked one and then developed it further. Once I was happy with them I moved on to the next one. The most challenging part was the fire itself, looking at different smoke, different flames, trying to achieve more of an artistic, abstract look rather than your typical flames.
Tell us something we don’t already know about the design… this could be a quirk in the design? Maybe a particular element that took a while to perfect? Or maybe something that happened while designing it?
The flames took the longest time to design as there was a lot of back and forth with The Royal Mint Advisory Committee in order to get the flames right. Creating the plumes of smoke was tricky, I used a line effect to give the impression of high, thick smoke, and I deliberately let the design spill over the border to convey that sense of the fire being uncontrollable.
There were certain requirements that the coin had to meet. For example, you had to have what we were commemorating written on the coin, so ‘THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON’ had to be included on the reverse, yet the denomination didn’t have to be, as you can include this on the obverse – so, there are little things like that that influenced the design. Working with those requirements, including all of the detail and then having to get that across on a coin that has a diameter of 28.4mm, well, as you can imagine, it was pretty hard!
Tell us something about your design that people may not have already noticed
I have included my initials ‘AW’ on the right hand side of the coin, just beneath the bottom of the skyline. After designing the Great Fire of London £2 coin, I have since found out that in order to get greater definition of the letters then they need to be of a narrower font, this is because the letters are so small – so, if I were to design a coin again, I would be sure to change the font of my initials to ensure they remain clear when the coin is struck.
What happens once your design has been approved?
After visual is signed off by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee we will then start working with the engravers to try and recreate the elements of the design on to the coin itself. As the coin is going to be available in both precious metals and everyday use it needs to be suitable for both uses, so I worked closely with the engravers to try and get the best relief out of the coin’s design. This is all done on a computer and then once this is ready it is sent to the reducing room to be cut into steel at coin size for the master tools.
Did you use anything in particular for your inspiration?
My main inspiration was London skylines, both past and present, that was what gave me the main platform to work on.
How did you want your design to be received, has it been received as well as you’d hoped?
I just want it to look different to other coins out there, I want it to appear more dramatic; when you compare it to other coins in the annual sets I want it to stand out.
How did you feel when you found out you were designing a circulating coin?
It was a great surprise to find out that it will now become a coin that will circulate around the UK and might be found in anybody’s pocket. I am very proud to know that I will be a part of history, and having my name on a coin is fantastic. The next challenge will be to find my own design on the coins in my pocket among the many millions to be struck!
What has been the reaction to this whole experience from your friends and family? Were they interested to know that this is how a new coin design comes about?
I’ve had a lot of good feedback on my coin design. Working in house and working with coins on a day-to-day basis we sometimes maybe take it for granted, but this has been a reminder that it is pretty special. It’s a really great achievement and my family are all really proud.
Will you be marking the anniversary this weekend? There are whole host of events taking place to commemorate 350 years since the fire, from talks to tours, exhibitions to fire installations; to find out more about what’s going on take a look at our blog ‘Great Fire 350, from the walks to the talks…‘ And, if you do come across any of the anniversary activity be sure to share your images with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.