Behind the design: Britannia 2017

Britannia is arguably the oldest and most famous symbol of Britain. Her image has appeared on the coinage for centuries, reflecting the spirit of the nation throughout shifts in art and politics, technology and popular culture. In 2017 we mark two important moments in the history of the Britannia coin, looking back to the moment the icon took up a new role as the face of Royal Mint Bullion on gold and silver coins.

The story of Britannia continues to evolve every year, she has been depicted in many forms, providing different meanings throughout the ages; from a voluptuous figure on the coins of Charles II to the ‘Queen of the Seas’ when our naval power was challenged in the eighteenth century. Each design is of its time, revealing the mood of the era and conveying the values of the nation.

Each year, we invite a designer to create their own interpretation of the icon on our coins, Britannia and for 2017 it is the turn of Louis Tamlyn. We recently caught up with Louis to find out a little more about his design.


Hi Louis, tell us a bit about yourself…

My name is Louis Tamlyn. I am currently enrolled on the BA Jewellery Design Course at Central Saint Martins.

I am born and raised in the tiny village of Sainte Croix in the South West of France by English parents. It is a very rural location. We only have one distant neighbour. This very remote and scenic area has been the ideal place for me to start creating and developing a multi-disciplinary approach towards art and design from a young age.

How did your journey with The Royal Mint begin?

The opportunity came through my college, Central Saint Martins. The 1st year students from the BA Jewellery Design course were all invited to participate in the brief given by the Royal Mint. I believe other colleges were also involved. It is unusual to get this opportunity as newcomers on the course. We were very lucky.

How does coin design differ from your other work?

I had never thought of designing art for a coin until this opportunity arose. During the process of designing Britannia, I realised it corresponds to many aspects of design that I enjoy: composition, intricacy, relief and texture.

I chose to enroll on a jewellery design course to get a better understanding of detail. I think that designing a coin has been the greatest challenge in this. A coin is in a sense a detail in itself. It is such a small object. The challenge was to design something within such a confined space that has a strong impact and is understandable to an audience.

How did you find it designing a coin, what did you have to do that was perhaps different to normal?

I was drawing the coin as if it were 20cm in diameter so I would have to photograph the design throughout the process, step by step, to see whether or not the design was still effective when it is ten times smaller. It is something I have never done before in design. I also used a mirror often, to flip the image and see any faults in the design. It is a very simple and effective technique I have used frequently in painting and portraiture.

I wanted the design to be bold so there isn’t much texture. This absence of texture on the island of Britain makes its silhouette more prominent.

How did you feel about designing a Britannia coin?

It is a unique experience. The Britannia coin has evolved through decades and to suddenly have a chance to design the Britannia 2017 commemorative coin is incredible. I am excited to see how she will develop throughout the coming years.  

How did you go about designing this coin? Talk us through the process…

I think to go about designing a coin like Britannia, as I have mentioned previously, is to consider its history. The Britannia design has evolved relatively slowly throughout the years. It is therefore important to come up with a design that is not completely disconnected to previous designs but at the same time takes it a step further. Consequently, I spent lots of time in the beginning looking at the Royal Mint’s previous designs.

Tell us about your research, did you use any in particular for your inspiration?

Philip Nathan, David Mach and Jody Clarke’s Britannia coins were what I focused on and observed the most. The use of the robe, combined with the textured Union Flag in the case of Mach’s design, inspired me to use the robe as a tool to communicate. In all three coins, the robe adds movement to their design. In the coin I designed, Britannia is almost identical. She holds shield and spear and wears a helmet, and I use these attributes as constants to symbolise Britannia’s longevity. In that sense, my contemporary interpretation of Britannia is more specifically an interpretation of her robe, that has become the geographical mass of the United Kingdom.

Talk us through the different elements of the coin

My aim was to make each element of the coin add to the dynamism of the whole. The spear creates a thin but strong diagonal across most of the coin. The shield’s left side hides underneath the rim of the coin, bringing the latter forward. Each element plays with one another to create depth. The radial pattern in the background echoing the striking design of the Union Flag make the eyes focus on Britannia.

What was the most challenging aspect of the design?

I think the scale was probably the most challenging aspect of this project. I also learnt that designing a coin is a puzzle, a challenge in composition and a communication tool rather than a form of expression. So many things must be considered: the history, the symbols and attributes and the meanings attached. Even though it is quite different to anything else I have done, the scale of the coin I designed and imagery as an integral part of it is very much what I work on as a visual artist and jewellery designer.

Tell us something we don’t already know about the design… this could be a quirk in the design? 

I wanted the design to have a visually strong impact so there aren’t many subtleties in a way unless you look at the hands and how she holds each item. There is a firm grip on the shield and a very loose grip on the spear. I think it is a nice detail that can be interpreted in diverse ways. A firm grip on the spear could have negative connotations.

How did you want your design to be received, what did you want it to communicate? And so far, has it been received as well as you’d hoped?

I think the main idea of my design is to reveal the feminine and powerful side of the island of United Kingdom, its silhouette resembling that of Britannia’s figure. It is a direct approach towards communicating to an audience that Britannia is the female personification of the island.

Would you like to design another coin? If so, if you could put anything on it, what would your design be?

 I usually delve into quite quirky projects. If I had the chance to create my own brief for the design of a coin, I would make a series of existing coins interfered by a train.

My mum gave me a 10p coin squashed by a train once. She put it on the rail track and waited for the train to do its magic. I found the result quite fascinating. In that instant of the train passing on top of the coin, the latter suddenly has the appearance of a relic, an object of value with a story to tell.

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?

None of my family and friends had thought of the origin of a coin until I started the project. They were all as fascinated as I was. I relate the design of a coin to that of a font. I watched quite recently the documentary ‘Helvetica’ about the proliferation of the typeface. This typeface is everywhere, on almost every shop and packaging, and isn’t seen as something that has been designed. It was in fact designed by Massimo Vignelli, an acclaimed graphic designer who also worked on the N.Y.C tube map. The same goes with a coin. To think that a whole design and marketing team are behind the design and launch of a coin is incredible. These designs are seen by a whole nation, and become a norm. People forget how much consideration goes into the back of a 10p coin design or that of the letter ‘a’ of Helvetica.    

Join us as we celebrate two historic anniversaries in Britannia’s evolving story. Click here to see the 2017 Britannia collection or visit the Britannia ‘discover’ page to see just how the story of Britannia has evolved.

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