Talented Royal Mint Engraver, Lee Jones, is the artist behind the coin that honours literary giant Dylan Thomas and celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth. Lee’s design has elicited much comment so, in a recent interview with him, we’ve gone ‘behind the design’ to find out what it was like to design the coin that commemorates one of his heroes.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, Lee…
Well, I’m 40 and I’m from Gelli in the Rhondda. I studied Animation at Glyntaff College. I’ve been an Engraver at The Royal Mint for almost 9 years now. Before joining The Royal Mint I was running my own animation business, working for various companies from London to Canada.
What does your job generally involve and what do you most enjoy about it?
My job involves a lot of design, modelling and tooling work, to not only produce the final designs but the working dies used to strike the coins. You can have a design to go on a coin or you can design a coin – and that’s what we do. To design a coin you have to look at the blank and see how it’s going to work technically as well. I work on both circulation and commemorative coins: for circulation coin designs you have to represent the country and say something about the culture; whereas with commemorative coin designs you can tell more of a story, it’s more art-based.
We understand you are a BIG fan of Dylan Thomas. How did you feel about designing a coin for someone whose work you admire?
I asked for the project! I saw it on the plan and I said ‘I want to do that!’ – so the Chief Engraver awarded the project to me. I would’ve fought to do it! As a fan of Dylan Thomas, I didn’t want to ‘let him down’. I wanted to give a true, in-depth view of him and all the aspects of his character expressed in his works. Interesting fact: when I first started here, one of my apprentice pieces was a ‘Dylan Thomas’ design.
He’s one of these poets who isn’t romantic, or ‘chocolate boxy’, he saw life as it really was and he struggled with it, as a troubled person. But in his work he says why he saw life as uncompromising and that it just rolls on. He tried to make sense of it and rages against it – ‘raging against the dying of the light’. These things are inherent in his work, he never tries to find a definitive answer, he’s philosophical and just tries to open doors for people. It’s such a fresh view-point.
What aspects of Dylan Thomas’ work or personality did you most want to depict?
I didn’t want to present the obvious, such as a profile with a bit of text. I wanted to represent Dylan as that poet, who’s haunted. When I spoke to his grand-daughter, Hannah Ellis, she said ‘you’ve got that haunted look in his eyes, that’s right, that’s how it should be’.
People do make comments and romanticise about poets. At a recent screening in Laugharne of ‘A Poet in New York’ someone was quite upset and said ‘you’ve just ruined everything about Dylan Thomas for me’. The screen writer, Andrew Davies, had to explain that Dylan wasn’t an angel, and I totally agree! You need to read his work to understand what the man was about. His heart was in the right place, he was a human being, but he wasn’t romantic and ‘flouncy’, he wasn’t writing things for greetings cards, he was writing about realities.
What feelings about Dylan Thomas did you want to inspire in people with your design?
To take a second look, not take it as him just lounging on the hillside, looking out over the fields and thinking about flowers. People have this misconception, but the man was wild and bare to the world, he was more like a raging storm than some whimsical walk to the pub on a Sunday. He was trying to say quite a lot, to wake people up; the man was complex.
To look beyond going to ‘Browns’ for a pint and the arguments with Caitlin, and see what he was doing in that little shed. Dylan wasn’t just the ‘bumbling drunk’ people think he was, that’s just a silly view. A cliché that’s attributed to artists in whatever discipline is that they’re tortured and drink a lot and go on about romantic notions and conceits. But you read his work and you’ll think ‘Oooh, that cut. How can his partner or children read that?’. He’s so harsh, but he’s just baring his soul and I think that openness is such an admirable quality in anyone.
Did you use any images in particular for your inspiration?
I sourced various photos of him; the one of him standing in front of a book-case is what formed the basis of the design. I wanted to capture that ‘1,000 yard’ stare in his eyes in that image.
You can see some of Lee’s inspiration on his Dylan Thomas Pinterest board.
What was the most challenging aspect of the design for you?
To get ‘the look’ in his eyes right! And there was also creating the roundness and softness of his features, the shape of his face and the shadows. Softness and curves are difficult to depict in metal. Sharper features and angles are much easier to engrave!
And the streaming hair! Jonah Jones – an artist and stone-mason who made a huge impact on me – did a plaque for Dylan at Westminster Abbey and a medal for the British Arts Medal Society. He showed Dylan’s hair waving and petering off, and I could see where he was coming from – this freedom, as if Dylan was caught in a vortex, this guy who was seeing the world differently.
And the waves – Dylan’s all about comparisons and metaphors – the surroundings where he grew up, the natural world, comparing it to things that happened in his life. I was trying to get all of that into the small space of a coin design.
What has been the reaction to your coin design and has it been received as you’d hoped?
Some of it is as I knew it would be – I’ve seen some comments on Twitter! But it has been appreciated by some experts. What was better than winning any competition was when his grand-daughter came along and said ‘Oh, yes. I know what that is, I know what that means’. She loved it and I felt ‘that’s alright then, my work is done’. She’s passionate about his work and wants to get the real man through as well, not just some of the silly views of him.
And the ‘dickey bow’ – Hannah said ‘Oh great, the humour’s in there as well, it’s balanced by that’. He used to wear a spotted dickey bow all the time, which is quite clownish in a way, but it shows the dichotomy of the man.
Now – tell us something we don’t know about the design!
Ferns are an obvious influence – I surrounded him by them and they are built into his jacket in the design. I was trying to show how ‘at one’ he was with the countryside of his surroundings. People get romantic about Fern Hill, but it’s all about the loss of youth, and that freedom you had in those times and the realisation of that. It wasn’t a rosy glow. He’s a real man with real issues, not a cardboard cut-out.
We hope that getting to know Lee and looking at his design in greater depth enhances your view of his thoughtful and insightful depiction of Dylan Thomas. Let us know your reaction to this coin on Social Media and tell us if you plan to add it to your collection.
Lee also designed the 2014 coin that commemorated the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, which was released earlier this year. Find out more about the 70th anniversary of D-Day commemorations and Lee’s commemorative design in our ‘Remembering D-Day: The 70th Anniversary‘ blog post.