Behind the design: the Lion of England and The Queen’s Beasts series

We’re only a few months into 2017 and already we’ve been spoiled by several exciting new coin releases, from the new 2017 designs we will find in our everyday change, to the special commemorative issues that marked the Sapphire Jubilee. One striking new series in particular, that is set to continue in 2017, has coin collectors very excited.

The Queen’s Beasts series of Proof coins, designed by Jody Clark, roared into life in December with the launch of the first coin in the series, the Lion of England.  Having previously designed the 2014 Britannia – which can be seen on this UK £50 coin – and most recently The Queen’s fifth circulating coinage portrait, Jody’s work is well known to coin collectors. And, if his Lion of England coin design is anything to go by, we’re set to be spoiled with a series of 10 striking coin designs. We recently spoke to Jody to find out more about his Lion of England design and The Queen’s Beasts series.

How did The Queen’s Beasts series come about?

The Queen’s Beasts series came about as any coin design would, it started with an RMAC (Royal Mint Advisory Committee) coin design competition. That was a while ago now. For the design competition, we had to design two beasts in the series at first – the griffin and the lion. My design was shortlisted along with a few other artists’ work. Having been shortlisted, we had to model the designs ourselves and then, having reviewed that, they chose my designs as the winner.

How did you begin to design The Queen’s Beasts series?

I always start by just hitting the internet and reading books. Taking a day for reading and gathering reference imagery and inspiration. Looking at what has been done before. Anything from just typing words linked to it into Google and seeing what comes up. Anything to get my mind going basically. I normally then get it all out and have a look through it and then just start sketching. I like to create a little template of about 12 mini coins and just fill them up with loads of ideas. I like to limit myself and then get sketching. I think you can spend all day doing research, it’s never ending. Something will come out of those 12 ideas that makes you think that it might work well for your design. 

queen's beasts lion

In that research, was there anything in particular that you were looking for?

There’s two approaches, the royal and heraldry or the fantastical approaches. I wanted my designs to be somewhere in the middle of the two really. Something that looked like a real beast rather than just a graphic heraldic image. We had to include the crest of each beast within our design, so the shield had to be in there. So I wanted the beast to be a bit more realistic, but something that you could still tell was a heraldic beast, to sort of play off the graphic image of the shield. I wanted it to look a bit more dynamic with a bit of movement in it. You get the sense that you’re looking up at the lion and I wanted to carry that perspective along the series. A big beast lifting up.

Was there any one thing that was the driving inspiration behind the bold designs?

I wanted it to look strong. I think heraldry comes from battles, your arms in battle – to see who’s on your side, so I wanted it to look aggressive and strong. That’s the only clear direction I was trying to follow.

So how did you settle on this composition?

I tried a few compositions but I go back to that strong word – I think that having it central and bold in the middle of the coin works the best.

Once you’ve got the idea that you want to proceed with at thumbnail size, where next?

Once I’ve decided on the direction from the tiny thumbnail sketch, I then start trying to figure it all out in my head. Once I’m happy with that then I scan it into the computer and use Photoshop to draw my final image – it’s just like drawing with a pencil but you have more control and you can ‘undo’ a lot easier, rather than rubbing out constantly. Once on the computer, I was also able to try the text around it – positioning the text is a lot easier on the computer. Then when I was happy with that I submitted it to the competition. After being shortlisted, there were a few amendments that the RMAC suggested. One of the things suggested was that the claws needed work in order to convey the strength of the beast. Having had another look, I was happy to have another go at it for the second round of the competition. So, you can see the difference from my original sketch to the early worked up versions of the design. Through the iterations, I made the lion look stronger, more aggressive and ‘beastly’. For example, I made the claw look a bit more like it was swiping compared to my first design. I also pushed it a bit further back to the heraldic lion, you’ll see that it is slightly more stylised in later versions. The original sketches were a bit more realistic.

How have you made the designs feel like a series, but also give them their own unique feel? For example, we know that the original Queen’s Beasts include two lions, how have you made them different? 

There is another lion coming later in the series – the White Lion of Mortimer. I haven’t designed that one yet, so that’s a challenge to come but the Lion of England has a crown on it and the White Lion of Mortimer doesn’t. So that’s a difference.

The Queen’s Beasts series seems quite different to anything you have tackled on coins before. Have you designed many animals or ‘beasts’ before?

I’ve done more realistic animals on coins before, for overseas coinage. I’ve also done lots of drawings of animals for other countries that haven’t been produced. However, The Queen’s Beasts  project has been great for me for being able to improve my ability to draw animal anatomy. 

Did you have to research the animal anatomy a lot when designing the Queen’s Beasts series?

Yes, I had to gather tonnes of references. The anatomy for some of these animals, these beasts, is quite tricky because there isn’t much reference material to go off in all the books and online. 

What was the most challenging aspect of the series, or the individual designs?

Depicting the different beasts themselves I think was the most challenging. You know, so it looks accurate but also looks stylised – hitting that balance of it looking stylised but that it also looks like it could be a real animal – a real beast!

Is there anything that we don’t know about the designs? Any hidden features?

I suppose the beasts looking in the different directions is a little feature that people may not know about or immediately notice as the beasts in the series are launched individually. Obviously, as I mentioned earlier, I had to make changes to the Lion of England’s claw and it was an important part of making it appear more ‘beastly’. One thing that I didn’t know is that the unicorn has cloven hooves, and I had to correct that in my design for the Unicorn of Scotland.

There’s a lot of reference imagery of lions that I’m sure you could find, but how did you manage with beasts such as the mythical Unicorn and Yale?

Yeah, there’s lots of aggressive lions to look at online, but not so many aggressive unicorns. The same can be said for the Falcon and the Yale – there isn’t an awful lot to go off for those beasts. I’d definitely say that certain ones have been more challenging than others.

The Queen’s Beasts were a series of statues. Did you look at them at all in your research?

I did look at the original Queen’s Beasts statues in my research, but to be honest these coin designs are very different. I looked at them to check that all the same elements were included, but they’re so different, so stylised, they are just like totem pole statues, so I didn’t really study them that deeply.

How have your designs been received so far?

I understand that they have been received well, I’ve heard positive things about my designs which is always nice.

Your effigy of The Queen features on the obverse, so you’ve designed both sides of these coins – does that make it extra special?

Yes, of course it does. It’s not the first one to have that, but it still makes it extra special!

With ten beasts in the series, I’m sure it’s going to keep you busy, but is there anything else that you’re working on that is coming out soon?

I have been working on a number of other projects and have entered a few design competitions, but unfortunately I cannot reveal anything just yet – but watch this space.

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