June 2015 marked the 200th anniversary of one of the greatest and most decisive battles in European history – the Battle of Waterloo. Fought on 18 June 1815, the Battle of Waterloo saw British and allied forces, led by The Duke of Wellington, defeat the French army, led by Napoleon Bonaparte. The battle lasted just one day, however it was part of a larger assault on Europe by Napoleon that led to a catastrophic loss of life. The eventual allied victory at Waterloo brought to an end the Napoleonic wars and over 20 years of conflict in Europe. The 200th anniversary of this significant battle is marked on the 2015 UK £5 coin, which was released earlier this year.
When David Lawrence, designer of the Battle of Waterloo £5 coin, recently came to The Royal Mint, we took the opportunity to find out more about his design, for the next instalment of our video series, the Designers’ Inspiration Series.
Interview with David Lawrence, designer of the Battle of Waterloo £5
Tell us a little bit about yourself…
My name is David Lawrence. To some clients I am an illustrator specialising in pastiche techniques. For others I design archaeological reconstructions and museum exhibition spaces. I have worked as a commercial sculptor – at one stage I was deeply involved with creating collectable gift-ware in America and have created many widely sold items in the UK. Some galleries know me for creating large oil paintings in the ‘pop surrealistic’ style. And, to The Royal Mint, I am a designer who endeavours to fill that blank circle with something symbolic, pertinent and memorable.
How did your journey with The Royal Mint begin?
The Royal Mint was, in former times, located at the Tower of London. In 2013 a new exhibition space was opened at the Tower to commemorate this period: there were artefacts, hands-on reconstructions, interpretive exhibits. I contributed two murals and an animation to the display.
The first designs I worked on for The Royal Mint were for the First World War Commemorative Series. I worked on the ‘Social and Cultural impact’ range of six coins. So far two of the six designs have been released: the ‘Propaganda’ coin in the 2014 set and the ‘Animals at War’ coin in the 2015 set. The remaining four will be released between now and 2018. I have also contributed several designs for other projects – which have got to various stages of development – but none to completion.
How does coin design differ from your other work?
The coin format was completely new to me. It is both exciting and terrifying. For each new coin, The Royal Mint provides a short briefing document: giving some pertinent facts and context and any specific wording requirements. Visually, however, one is left very much to one’s own devices: I would suppose it could be likened to a writer looking at a blank page.
How did you feel about designing the coin to mark this significant anniversary?
I was somewhat nervous. The design will be seen by such a large and diverse group of collectors – many with in-depth knowledge and expertise. I hope the majority will be pleased by the imagery used!
Tell us about your research. Was there anything that had a particular influence?
My early designs involved the more obvious elements from the battle, as one might expect: vignettes of Napoleon and Wellington, piles of armour, cannon and swords, and regimental badges.
However, having looked deeper into the events of the battle I came to realise that it was Blücher’s intervention that saved the day. By late afternoon on the 18 June 1815 Wellington was in a desperate position: his disparate, inexperienced forces were losing ground against the much more experienced French forces. The Prussian Army, led by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, had actually suffered a defeat at the hands of Napoleon two days previously – but managed to rally their forces to come to Wellington’s aid. It was the turning point of the battle. ‘The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’, remarked Wellington later. I thought that perhaps this aspect should be acknowledged.
The coin design is an adaptation of Daniel Maclise’s painting, which is in the House of Lords. It shows Wellington and Blücher shaking hands after the battle – it had a nice touch of post-conflict trans-european harmony and co-operation about it.
What was the most challenging aspect of the design?
The central characters of the painting are really quite strong and dynamic and required little additional work – other than to simplify and interpret the design into a drawing useable by a sculptor and to correct a few anatomical anomalies and reposition a few details.
Aside from the painting by Daniel Maclise, were there any other objects or images that you used for inspiration?
In the original painting the two central characters are meeting in a nondescript corner of a town: a damaged building is behind them, they are surrounded by officers and troops. To me this seemed a little too static and remote from the actual battle – it may have been a record of the actual meeting – but it didn’t encompass the whole event. Waterloo was a truly epic and terrible engagement – between 10a.m. and dusk on 18 June some 48,000 men were killed. Reports of the battlefield the next day talk of heaps of dead and wounded and horrific carnage. So the backdrop (and back story) to the two victorious leaders shaking hands – of the successful defeat of Napoleon (which led, in turn to a prolonged period of peace for Britain and most of Europe) – is a reference to the cost at which this was achieved. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly (considering its momentous scale and importance) many vast and graphic oil paintings of the Battle of Waterloo to provide inspiration and reference. However I found some scenes in the 1970 film ‘Waterloo’ particularly evocative – especially the post-conflict aerial shots: the famous defensive squares adopted by the British troops can be still seen post-engagement: delineated by squares of corpses.
Would you like to design more coins?
As long as I come up with something The Royal Mint considers interesting and relevant, I would love to continue to design coins.
Are you a coin collector?
I do not consider myself to be a collector, though I do have a large pot full of random foreign coins from many periods, some of which are quite old. They include many styles and metals and patinas, inscriptions in all languages, heads of long-dead monarchs and symbolic images of tremendous obscurity. I would never catalogue or research them – I love the random ‘hidden history’ nature of dipping into the pot.