Toward A More Beautiful Coinage

Discussion in 'US Coins Forum' started by leeg, Jun 20, 2019.

  1. leeg

    leeg I Enjoy Toned Coins

    This was written in 1936 by John Howard Benson.


    John Howard Benson, Newport, R. I. (One of the designers of the Rhode Island Half Dollar). Image courtesy of American Artist Magazine, March, 1943.

    “Coins may be thought of as things to be collected, or they may be thought of as things to be made. This paper deals with coins considered as things to be made, that is, from the point of view of the practical artist.

    It seems a generally accepted opinion that the majority of ancient coins are more beautiful than the majority of modern ones. How is this explained? Is it that modern coin designers do not try to make their work beautiful? No. It is probable that they try for beauty much harder than did their predecessors. Is it that modern men are potentially inferior as artists to ancient men? We see no reason to accept this pessimistic view. Is it that the modern designer must conform to certain mechanical conditions unknown to the ancients, such as that his coins must be perfectly round, much stack, etc.? Again, no. Such conditions, if intelligently accepted, are only the limits within which any artist must do his work, and such conditions are no more to be made an excuse for bad coins than the fact that the poet is limited to fourteen lines can be made an excuse for a bad sonnet.

    We believe that the answer is much simpler than any of these. It is that the majority of designers of coins have not intelligently studied their job. Coins are struck from dies. Dies are made by the art of the die sinker. Every art differs from every other art. Die-sinking differs from every other art. Knowledge of this art is only gained from a study and practice of it, not from the study and practice of other arts, even though these may be in some ways similar.

    Our success has come about through the dividing up of the art of making coins between two men, or sets of men, when the whole process should be controlled by a single mind. The formal part of the problem is taken care of by ‘artists’ who know nothing, and often apparently desire to know nothing, about technique. And the technical part of the problem is taken care of by technicians who have no formal training – cannot, or think they cannot, design. The two men do not know enough of each other’s problems to be able to work together in harmony, however much they may desire to do so. The difficulty is that the artist has been cut in two, as it were, and that the two half-artists, one interested and instructed only in form, and the other only in technique, are trying to do the work of a single integrated man. The difficulty can be solved either by educating the technician formally, or by educating the designer technically.

    Now because the designing of coins today in the hands of the ‘artist,’ the practical problem is his technical education. Let us, therefore, turn to the libraries of books which describe ancient coins and see what they have to tell us about technique. But we find that these libraries are not of much help to us, because they are written by collectors and for collectors and about the things collectors are interested in, and not about the things artists are interested in. In Hill’s book there is a chapter upon the technique of ancient die-sinker, but it is far from satisfactory as a guide to anyone who would make coins by a method similar to that employed by the ancients.

    This general neglect of the technical aspect of the problems of coin design is exemplified also in the actions of those committees who are charged with the duty of selecting designs.

    John Stevens Shop in Newport, RI. Image courtesy of Nicholas Benson who is the grandson of John Howard Benson one of the designers of the coin.

    So intelligent a man as Mr. W. B. Yeats, for instance, the chairman of the committee which selected the designs for the new coinage of the Irish Free State, says in his committee report that he sent photographs of certain Greek coins to the competing artists, suggesting that the committee thought them very beautiful and wanted something of the same sort. It never seems to have occurred even to Mr. Yeats that the method by which the Greek coins were produced, the nature of the art of which they were the result, might have had something to do with their perfection and beauty. Beauty is not something which an artist plasters onto the exterior of an otherwise unbeautiful object; but is a manifestation of an object’s own inner rightness and perfection, something that comes from within.

    An attempt to reform the art of present-day coin making must, therefore, start with a realistic analysis. What is a coin? What is its purpose? Of what materials is it fabricated? What are the instruments by which these materials are changed from their raw into their ultimate state? What part has the human imagination to play in the affair? Let us take up these questions separately.

    What is the purpose or function of a coin? A coin is a unit of currency. It must resist wear and corrosion in order to be current as long as possible. It must be small so that it can be carried in a small space. It must bear emblems or legends, or both, which fix its value, and at the same time insure its official authenticity. Because all coins must be small, many coins must be of precious materials. Coins of precious materials must be protected from ‘clipping’ by making them perfectly round, and finishing the edge with ‘milling’ or some similar continuous pattern. Coins in order to stack must not be thicker in any part than they are at their edges.

    These functions the artist of the coin must keep in mind, but especially must he keep in mind the problems of legibility and wear. The devices and words with which he decorates its surface must be as legible as possible, and so designed that after the wear to which they will necessarily, and as a part of their function as coins be subjected, they will still retain a maximum of legibility. This means that the symbols and words must be large in proportion to itself as a whole. It should ideally be perfectly legible in all its parts by a person of good eyesight at arm’s length. In other words, the ‘scale’ of its design should be as big as the artist can make it. And the design should be so simple that when the details of surface have been lost by abrasion, the meaning of the emblem, which meaning the emblem exists to put into the observer’s mind is clear. (D).

    The materials of coins are high alloys of gold and of silver, and bronze. The natures of these metals differ widely. Gold is not subject to discoloration by any ordinary means. Gold never ‘oxidizes’ or tarnishes. It has a very beautiful color of its own, however, and the slight variations in this color when the surface of a piece of gold is skillfully modulated, the variety of yellows which are reflected from its polished surface, produce color sequences which are often very beautiful.

    Silver, however, when exposed to the sulphur in ordinary city air, tarnishes very rapidly and turns to a dull black. When a silver coin is in daily use, the protected parts of its surface soon begin to change to this color, while the exposed parts, from continual rubbing upon other objects, remain white. Where the color scheme of a gold coin, therefore, is a delicate harmony of yellows that of a silver coin is a strong contrast of black and white. And this patterning is most effective when the boundaries of the two colors are clear and sharp. Good examples of this patterning are shown in the Roman coin (C), and that of Edward the Fourth (I). But even where this ‘oxidation’ is not deliberately planned for, it adds a richness to the silver surface which is foreign to the nature of gold.

    Courtesy of Toward A More Beautiful Coinage, By John Howard Benson, Newport, R. I., One of the designers of the Rhode Island Half Dollar. The Numismatist, March 1936, p. 159.

    Bronze is subject to natural tarnish, but both because the tarnished metal is lighter than black and the untarnished metal much darker than white the contrast between the two extremes of color is much less than in the case of silver. The tarnish acts as a kind of emphases to the modeling of the surface, but has neither the delicacy of the pure color relationships of gold nor the sharpness of definition of the black and white which is possible in silver, if it is handled skillfully.

    What of the actual process of making coins, as distinguished both from the function of coins and from their materials? The first step in the understanding of the process is the making of a distinction which is very generally overlooked today. The distinction is between the arts of carving and of modeling which, different as they are, are usually lumped together under the general name of ‘sculpture.’ These arts are so different that it is very seldom that we find a modeler who is a good carver, or a carver who is a good modeler. The two arts require for their perfect practice different kinds of minds. The process of carving is essentially subtractive; it consists in taking pieces off. The material for carving is hard, so that the process of subtraction is slow, and it is irreversible. What has been taken off cannot be put back again.

    The ultimate shape of the carved object is inside the block on which the artist works, and he works towards that shape by an orderly process of cutting planes of increasing number and complexity, and decreasing size, as he nears his objective. The process of modeling on the other hand, is essentially additive; it consists in putting pieces on. The material is soft and plastic, so that the process of addition may be rapid. Because what has been put on can be as easily taken off again, the judgments of the artists are not final in each case, but he may experiment and change his plans as he pleases. The ultimate shape of the modeled object is outside the mass of soft material on which he works. It is always just beyond the surface at which he is actually looking. The simplified form of the image is not the same of the block from which the carver starts, and within the limits of which he organizes his design, but it is the metal skeleton or armature upon which the clothing of plastic material is built.

    A memorial figure, photographed in the John Stevens Shop. In its manner there is an interesting synthesis of modern feeling and Medievalism. Image courtesy of American Artist Magazine, March, 1943.

    It is strange that arts so different as these two of carving and modeling should be confused with each other; but it is not at all strange that, being so confused, there should be so much bad sculpture in the world today. For most stone statues today, whether made by ‘artists’ in studios, or by ‘the trade,’ are objects of a bastard art, half carving and half modeling, but with the excellencies of neither parent. Such statues are planned in clay, their ultimate shapes determined in clay by men who have only the slightest knowledge of either hard materials or the glyptic technique, and then these clay shapes are forcibly and arbitrarily imposed upon stone by the means of the pointing machine. Such a procedure is an act of artistic violence. The statue that results, having neither the full beauty of modeling or of carving, proves this true.

    The first technical decision, therefore, of the artist who is concerned to improve modern coinage, will be to abandon this self-contradictory technique and confine himself either to pure modeling and its natural consequent, casting, or to pure carving and its natural consequent, striking. Coins have been made by the process of modeling and casting, and theoretically, they might be so made today. But practically, because of the small size and necessary multiplication of modern coins, the art which we actually use, and must continue to use, is the very different one of die-sinking and striking. The art of die-sinking is essentially carving, the engraving or cutting away of patterns out of pieces of steel, which are later still further hardened before they can be used to stamp out the metal blanks. Just as in the case of larger sculptural objects, what is to be carved in a hard material must, to achieve any interior rightness and, therefore, any beauty, be thought out in terms of that hard material, and by a mind which has sufficient knowledge of its use. A man cannot think out an engraved steel pattern unless he has engraved steel. He must know the technique before he can use it formally.

    But today dies are usually cut by a complicated mechanism known as the pantographic and die-cutter, rather than by hand and with engraving tools and punches. The model which is supplied to this machine is usually of plaster, and for a coin of ordinary size is at least eight or ten inches in diameter. It is in the preparation of this enlarged plaster model that the thinking out of the ultimate shape must be done. This alienation of the modern artist from the actualities of his work puts him at a very severe disadvantage as against the artist working with more simple tools. If an artist engraves a steel die directly, he is not only dealing with steel, and the tools with which steel is really shaped, punches and gravers, but he is making dots and lines and shaped surfaces at the actual size in which these will be seen on the coin itself. He is able to know what he is doing, and control the factors of his craft in a way which is quite impossible to the artist who is working with the tools of a modeler, upon a disk of clay or plastecene. Which is at least as large as a soup plate, and sometimes ten times that size.

    Under such enormous disadvantage it is not strange that the modern coin designer is as unsuccessful as he is in the production of really beautiful objects. But it is a disadvantage which, if properly understood and faced, may be to a certain extent at least circumvented. Even though the designer has to work on a large instead of a small object, there is no reason why he should have to model rather than carve. And if he determines to carve, he can carve with tools which have exactly the same size relationship to the larger plaster die as gravers would have to the small steel one. The use of such tools, and the determination not to use any smaller, will automatically prevent him from making most of the mistakes in scale which contemporary designers make. A study of the illustrations will show how important in the old work were the design units of dot and line, and how important to the unity of each design is the fact that no dot is smaller ad no line finer than a certain minimum. The older artist, working with simple tools and his unaided eyesight, achieved quite naturally a just size relationship between his final object and human eyesight. This just relationship we call ‘good scale.’ But the modern artist, working with very complicated instruments and at a size often greatly magnified, may still achieve ‘good scale.’ If he understands the nature of the problem, and use intelligence and good will in dealing with it.

    The last point to be considered concerns a difference in the way in which ancient and modern peoples regard the nature of the symbol. This is very important in its bearing on the question just discussed-that of the over-minuteness of detail in modern coins, which the pantograph makes possible. Coins bear not only words but symbols. What is a symbol?

    To the ancient, either as artist or as observer, a symbol is a reminder or something already fully known. The ancient artist was able to use a very simple symbol because his purpose was to remind the observer of something with which he was so familiar that he could easily visualize it in his own imagination, in all its details. He relied on the active co-operation of the spectator’s imagination.

    Thus the verbal symbol MAN does not tell anyone who does not know it already what a man is like, but stands in a symbolic way for all the knowledge that the spectator already has in his mind concerning mankind. The symbol of the cross does not describe this Christian idea of the redemption, but to anyone already familiar with this idea it symbolizes it. Today many artists and many spectators take a different attitude toward the symbol. They tend to regard the symbol as something which conveys information to a mind which has it not. The artist assumes that he must illustrate, as one illustrates a story, for a spectator who is ignorant and, therefore, incapable of visualizing the thing symbolized without its aid. He assumes that the spectator relies on him for the elaboration and clarification of a vague idea. Where the older artist uses symbol to remind the spectator of what he already knows, the modern artist often uses symbol as if to instruct him in what he does not know.

    It is easy to see that this modern idea of a symbol will tend to make the emblems on a coin very complicated affairs, crowded with minute detail. If the function of an emblem is the instruction of the uninstructed, the more instruction can be crammed into the emblem the better it will serve its purpose, the better emblem it will be. The cross on the coin of Edward IV (I) is a truer symbol of the crucifixion in the old sense than would the most detailed and realistic representations of that event; but to many modern men it would be unsatisfactory as anything except decoration, because it tells us nothing about the crucifixion that we do not already know.

    This tendency to desire for quantities of instructive detail has unfortunately coincided with the means of achieving this desire in all the pantographic process, and end and means together have completely destroyed proper scale relationship in very many modern coins. Where a more primitive technique would have prevented the artist from even considering the microscopic representation that the idea of instructive symbolism calls for, modern technology has encouraged him to lavish on his work a refinement of detail which is often actually invisible to the unaided eye. To reestablish then, a proper relationship between an object of ordinary human use-the coin-and the human eye which is to read it-to reestablish good scale-we must turn our attention not only to the mechanisms by which good scale had been defeated, but to the modern idea of what the symbol actually is, which is what has made the use of these mechanisms so desirable.

    To sum up, we have tried to show that both in the proper appreciation and in the proper making of coins, good results can only come from an understanding of four main determinates of the productive problem: The exigencies of Purpose, of Material, of Instrument, and of Symbolic Significance. Only when coins are planned with these four determinants in harmonious relationship to each other will coins have that intrinsic perfection which we feel as true beauty.”1

    Second- and third-generation stonecarvers John Benson and son Nick in the studio of The John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island. Courtesy of

    1 The Numismatist, Toward a More Beautiful Coinage, March, 1936, p. 157-162.
    Last edited: Jun 20, 2019
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  3. -jeffB

    -jeffB Greshams LEO Supporter

    I can only imagine Benson the elder's horror had he encountered modern CAD/CAM. "Carving" with UNDO!

    Not to mention 3D printing.
    leeg likes this.
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