In 2015, the year when the fifth definitive coin portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be revealed, it is poignant to note that 27 January marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the artist entrusted to create Her Majesty’s first coin portrait in 1952. Mary Gillick, already a sculptor of note at that momentous time, sadly passed away 13 years later, in 1965. So, who was this lady, whose work adorned the UK coins in our hands every day from 1953 to 1967?
Early life and marriage
Born in 1881 as Mary Gaskell Tutin, she studied at the Nottingham School of Art, then at the Royal College of Art from 1902-04. The following year she married Ernest Gillick, an important sculptor and medallist, who is believed to have greatly influenced her work. As well as creating many sculptures and commemorative medals, he also re-designed the reverse of the Polar Medal in 1904.
An interesting fact arises here – by tradition the obverse of this medal bears the reigning monarch’s portrait, and it is still today Mary Gillick’s first coin portrait of The Queen that is used. So Polar medals awarded since 1952 bear a Gillick design on both sides! I wonder if Mary ever realised that? Sadly, Ernest never knew, as he died before Elizabeth ascended the throne.
Mary made her first exhibition, of mostly large bronze and stone sculptures, at the Royal Academy in 1911, when she was 30 years of age and six years after her marriage to Ernest. At their studio in Chelsea, London she and Ernest worked together for 46 years. They are said to have had ‘an ideal working partnership’.
From about 1920 onward Mary produced a number of medals for learned societies and institutions; notably the Royal Society and the Royal Academy. Later on, she designed a long series of memorial plaques and portrait medallions. It is said that she always carefully studied the type and direction of lighting and her aim was to represent the subject as they were best known at the height of their powers. She was also a keen painter and displayed one of her works ‘Flowers in January’ in a 1951 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition.
The Royal Portrait Commission
To be awarded the honour of this commission – her first coin work and undoubtedly the crowning moment of her career – the 71-year-old Mary beat 16 other artists in a competition conducted by The Royal Mint Advisory Committee. The committee considered that her fresh, evocative depiction of the youthful monarch wearing a wreath beautifully reflected the optimistic mood of the nation as a new Elizabethan era dawned.
In her submission for the competition, Mary described her work in the following words:
“My aim is always to try in the first place for good design, the head well placed within the circle, the lines of the silhouette composing well with the circle, and the lettering used as an essential part of the design and not as something added afterwards, anyhow and anywhere. After getting, so far as one can, these things, then to try for as good a portrait as possible.”
On a sad personal note, Mary did not have the pleasure of sharing this memorable triumph with her husband; Ernest died suddenly in their studio in September 1951.
1953 and Beyond
Although the royal portrait was created during the first year of Her Majesty’s reign it did not appear on UK coins until the following year, 1953. It went on to appear on UK coins until 1967, as well as being adopted for the coinage of many commonwealth countries.
In the years immediately following Mary’s triumph in the competition, she produced further royal portrait designs. Among these are a joint medallic portrait of The Queen and HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh to commemorate royal visits and The Duke of Edinburgh’s portrait on medals such as that of the College of Air Training. Mary was awarded an O.B.E. in 1953 in commemoration of Her Majesty’s Coronation.
Mary Gillick’s uncrowned portrait of Her Majesty is still struck on coins today, although not on current circulating coins. It continues to grace the Maundy Money distributed each year by Her Majesty. It is said that one reason for this is the simple fact that the portrait is so well-liked by Her Majesty and The Duke of Edinburgh. Read more about the ancient Royal Maundy ceremony here.
Although arthritis slowed down her sculptural work in her later years, Mary continued to live and work at her Chelsea home. She was still working up to her death at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital in London in 1965. The precious pattern pieces and original dies created from her historic work are now safely housed at The Royal Mint Museum.