British Museum Displays “Mary Gillick: Modelling The Queen’s Portrait”

Plaster model for the obverse of a coin. Mary Gillick, 1952. Bust of Queen Elizabeth II r., wearing laurel wreath. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
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In celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June, the British Museum will open a new, free display centering around female artist Mary Gillick’s (1881–1965) portrait of Elizabeth II. This was for the first ever coin featuring The Queen, designed 70 years ago in 1952 and issued in 1953. The Asahi Shimbun Display Mary Gillick: modelling The Queen’s portrait will showcase the production and reception of the coin, shining a light on the excitement around the young Queen’s first depiction on British currency. The exhibition will be on view until 31 July 2022.

Struck bronze uniface medal. Mary Gillick, 1941. Bust of John Cadman, First Baron Cadman of Silverdale, r. Nude female figure kneeling l., holding up oil-lamp. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gillick’s portrait of The Queen combined modern design with Italian Renaissance influences, building on her experience as a medal maker. A female artist bringing a modern style to traditional coinage was hailed by many as a fitting start to The Queen’s reign. Her iconic design remained in circulation on coins in the UK until the 1990s. In addition, the design has been adapted for use on British commemorative stamps since 1966 and still appears on the Maundy money given out by The Queen each Easter, indicating its continued importance.

Philip Attwood, curator of the display said: “The Platinum Jubilee presents the British Museum with a marvellous opportunity to celebrate the life and work of Mary Gillick, a sculptor whose name may not be known to many nowadays, but whose major work, the coin portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, filled the pockets and purses of the nation for decades. Revolutionary in its day due to the debt it owes to Renaissance medals, the design is today regarded as a classic.”

Struck bronze medal. Mary Gillick, 1945. Bust of Charles Chree, l. Nude cherub standing to front, wearing laurel wreath and holding up scroll with graph. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Selected to design the coin from a cohort of invited artists, the identity of Gillick as the artist remained a secret for months. When details of the design were finally announced, the choice of a female artist in her seventies garnered great interest from the press and public. Gillick was thrust into the limelight, with photos of her posing with her design printed in newspapers all over the nation and abroad. Despite this initial interest and her long career as a sculptor, Gillick remains a much-neglected artist. As well as commemorating The Queen, this exhibition will recognize Gillick’s significant contributions to sculpture and medal design, exploring her life and work.

Struck bronze medal. Mary Gillick, 1952. Bust of Queen Elizabeth II r., wearing laurel wreath. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gillick was admired by prominent figures in the art world, such as Sir Kenneth Clark. She trained at the Royal College of Art where she discovered Renaissance medals. A medal by the celebrated “inventor” of the medal, the 15th century Italian painter Pisanello, will be displayed alongside her work. Gillick was inspired by what is often termed the golden age of medal design, modernizing Pisanello’s style to suit 20th century Britain. Other significant commissions such as a portrait of prominent suffragette Ida Wylie, commissioned by Wylie’s lover Rachel Barrett, and depictions of an airman who shot down a Zeppelin over England during the First World War will also be on view along with preparatory drawings.

A highlight of the display will be items presented to the British Museum by the artist’s family in 2005, which included medals created by Gillick from the 1910s to the 1950s, a set of large-scale plaster models of her portrait of The Queen, and documents relating to the new coins. Drawings and photographs loaned from the Henry Moore Institute will demonstrate the creative process in full.

Bust of Queen Elizabeth II r., wearing laurel wreath. Reproduced by permission of the artist © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This display is part of the celebrations marking Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. On Saturday 11 June the Museum is holding The Platinum Jubilee Party with family friendly activities on offer. Visitors will have the chance to create their own Mary Gillick style portrait of The Queen in a workshop run by artist David Allsop. Individual portraits – taken with an onsite photobooth – will be decorated and made into an enormous collaborative card that will be sent to the Royal Household. Other activities include making decorative crowns with the independent jewellery brand Tatty Devine and a performance by London-based brass band No Limit Street Band. Free tickets are available to book on the Museum website.

To coincide with the display, a beautifully illustrated publication, Mary Gillick: sculptor and medallist, written by Philip Attwood, will be published by Spink Books in collaboration with the British Museum in May 2022. Hardback, £25, ISBN 9781912667758. You can order the publication directly form Spink.


Read more about the medallic artist Mary Gillick.

On this official website you will find all information regarding the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen.

You can find e.g. British sovereigns featuring Mary Gillick’s portrait in our database Cosmos of Collectibles.