On 15 September 1940 the German Luftwaffe launched a massive assault on Britain that it believed would pave the way for a successful invasion and bring an end to the Battle of Britain. However, a day of intense fighting saw the Germans suffer their highest losses since the ‘Hardest Day’, 18 August. It was an overwhelming defeat for the Luftwaffe and the action on 15 September would ultimately bring to an end the Battle of Britain. For this reason the day became known and celebrated in the United Kingdom as ‘Battle of Britain Day‘.
Ahead of the 75th anniversary of Battle of Britain Day, we caught up with the designers of the Battle of Britain 50p, Gary and Lee Breeze, at IWM Duxford, to find out more about their inspiration and how it felt to design the coin to mark this significant anniversary.
Interview with Gary Breeze, designer of the Battle of Britain 50p
Tell us a little bit about yourself…
After art school I began working as a letter cutter, which is someone who carves letters into stone or wood. I trained with the late David Holgate in Norwich and also worked with Richard Kindersley for a while before setting up on my own. My ambition was always to run a busy workshop. Carving letters in stone and wood involves a range of skills, drawing in particular, the ability to mason shapes or carve in relief, and a particular attention to detail, which is required to create fine letter-forms for any application.
How did your journey with The Royal Mint begin?
I was approached by The Royal Mint quite out of the blue a few years ago to work on designs for commemorative coins in the run up to the centenary of the First World War. I also worked on one or two other projects, none of which came to fruition.
How does coin design differ from your other work?
I don’t see any difference whether I’m designing a tiny coin or a monumental inscription. There are more similarities than differences in fact; designing for architecture or public space requires a certain gravitas I suppose. This can be achieved by focusing on a robust and minimal design approach. Coins require a similar approach I think. The only differences are technical ones; concerning oneself with what happens when a design is reduced to the size of a coin. I believe monumentality is achievable in the tiniest object.
How did you go about designing this coin? Talk us through the process…
The brief rather led me to focus on the hardware of the Battle of Britain, Spitfires and 109s etc, but I had a niggling feeling that this was wrong in some way. My brother Lee is very knowledgeable about the history of coins and what has gone before and he too felt that the machines had been done before. It was Lee who came up with the brilliant idea of focusing on the airmen instead. He did a sketch of pilots ‘scrambling’ towards their planes. I worked this concept up and incorporated the two Mk1 Spitfires and a sky full of Nazi bombers. I had other versions but this was the one The Royal Mint liked best. The airmen running enthusiastically to their fate is poignant and struck the right chord with everyone I think. It’s them that we remember after all.
How did you feel about designing the coin to mark this significant anniversary?
It’s hard to be British and not be proud of The Few as they are known. I grew up next to RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight consisting of a Lancaster Bomber, a Spitfire and a Hurricane were regular visitors overhead. Being involved with anything which commemorates the sacrifices made is an amazing feeling. I hope that by focusing on the airmen in our design we avoided merely glorifying the machines of war, however exciting and evocative they are.
How did you feel when you found out you were designing a circulating coin?
When I was at art school I would never have imagined that I would end up designing something for The Royal Mint. It felt like an acknowledgement that my work was okay, and that is an incredible feeling! Added to that, doing a circulating coin is surely the holy grail of all coin design!
Tell us about your research…
The Imperial War Museum have a fantastic online archive of images that has made this kind of research easier in recent years. I found a number of useful pictures of airmen scrambling and it felt important to me to use real men. The two Spitfires were drawn from photographs I took of a model Lee bought me for the purpose. They had to be Mk 1s! The lettering was inspired by war memorials of the period. I’m a letter-carver by trade, and it was important to me to give the lettering a hand-made quality. I also looked at coins from the period, all of which used to have hand sculpted lettering.
Did you use any images in particular for your inspiration?
Two of the pilots were taken from the iconic picture, well known to enthusiasts of World War Two history, of 86 Hurricane squadron who were based at Croydon. It took some hunting to find a third man in a suitable pose. He came from a photo of a man probably not involved in the Battle of Britain, as he was running towards a Hawker Typhoon. I know there has been some comments made about the predictable use of Spitfires, rather than Hurricanes which were perhaps the true workhorses of the battle. But I used Spitfires mainly because their wing shapes are so easily identifiable to a broad range of people. Recognisable shapes are important to the successful design of a small coin. The image of the bombers was based loosely on illustrations from a contemporaneous illustrated book about the Battle of Britain.
What was the most challenging aspect of the design?
Running figures often look like they are falling over, or even hopping or standing still. I had to find figures that had the necessary dynamism. I tried redrawing figures to get them to work but in the end a good photo was more useful. Getting enough detail to make the men look like they are running fast but not over-complicating the image was certainly a challenge. Sometimes too much detail doesn’t help; take the vent in the right hand pilot’s jacket; it had to be ‘smoothed’ out because it looked like he had no trousers on at all!
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?
If you look very carefully you will see that the propellers have been stopped in different positions, the left Spitfire with one blade at the top and the right with one blade pointing down. This was only done in an effort to make the design work, but we did have to question whether in life this was a possibility. There are a lot of Spitfire experts out there. Fortunately it was.
How did you want your design to be received? And so far, has it been received as well as you’d hoped?
I felt a sense of responsibility. This isn’t an image one can be frivolous about. The aircraft have to be right as I’ve said for the experts, and we all need to feel that it strikes the right note. So far the comments have been positive.
Would you like to design another coin? If so, if you could put anything on it, what would your design be?
Designing coins for The Royal Mint is a very prestigious commission to undertake. To do another would be an honour. Design always has to be subject led but I’d like an excuse to design a coin which taps into the wonderful Romano-Celtic and Anglo-saxon imagery on our early coin designs.
Have you seen a coin with your design in circulation yet? If not, are you looking forward to finding one in circulation?
As I write this our coin is not yet in circulation, but I’m looking forward to getting one in my change.
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 number of successes and prestigious commissions in my career. Years ago I did the lettering to the Princess of Wales’ memorial and more recently we carved the lettering on Richard III’s new tomb, but in spite of its size this is in many ways the biggest commission I’ve had and has naturally drawn a lot of attention.
Has anyone you know become interested in coin collecting following your experience? Are YOU now a coin collector?
My brother Lee was already a coin collector and is incredibly knowledgeable about British coins in particular. He found it hard to keep quiet about his involvement in the design. I too had to keep quiet about it for such a long time that the publicity rather caught me by surprise, and I wish Lee could have had more acknowledgment for his role in this process. I’m trying to put that right. I’ve included his initial sketches which show the original image of the running airmen. I hope this material becomes a part of the history of this coin.
If you would like to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain with a special addition to your collection, the coin is now available from www.royalmint.com in a range of precious metals that showcase Gary Breeze’s design in fine detail.