Like millions of other Australians, I’ve spent most of my life carting around a clutch-full of coins, jingling in my pocket or lurking at the bottom of my bag, without giving the wonderful art they contain, or the artist who created it, a second thought.
But it’s a mystery no more, thanks to a small but delightful exhibition at the National Mint in Canberra: Stuart Devlin – Designer with the Midas Touch. To commemorate 50 years of decimal currency in Australia, the exhibition features the career highlights of this much lauded but largely unfamiliar designer, goldsmith, jeweller and artist; the man who won the 1964 competition to design Australia’s new decimal coins released in 1966, the competition that set him on his way internationally in the design world.
That includes working for royalty, being appointed as goldsmith and jewellery to the Queen herself in 1982, and receiving a range of impressive and notable commissions. The exhibition features some beautiful pieces from Devlin’s personal collection, his famous Wiltshire knife sheaf, and some other intricate work and designs, including maces for universities (I even learnt a new word while I was at the exhibition).
The exhibition also displays his first sketches for the decimal coin design competition, which featured some rather flat industrial designs. They weren’t popular with the judges (based on the comments provided, the judges weren’t well versed in the art of providing constructive criticism), so he had another go, this time featuring Australia’s fabulous native animals, and nailed it the second time around.
How fortuitous! You can even see some of the other animal designs that didn’t get through. Imagine. We could have had a cockatoo and a marlin on our coins instead of a frill neck lizard or a platypus.
I especially loved a little autograph booked signed by Devlin back in 1964 featuring a perfect replica of one of his now famous coin designs. I had one of those little autograph books in my youth too, but I only managed to get the signatures of very nice but mainly unnotable school mates and family members on mine, none of whom turned out to be quite so well known.
Perhaps my favourite bits were the delightful sketches of the ‘royal ladies’, the Queen, her mum, sister, daughter-in-law and so on, which were made into a series of commemorative coins. Mention was made of the sketches done of Princess Fergie, but that coin was MIA, never to be created, or at least not released. Might have had something to do with that toe-sucking incident. The thing I was most impressed with was the beautiful detail of the sketches and cast work that precedes the casting of the coin. Quite a revelation, and beautiful sketching.
We don’t get to hear much about Mr Devlin, now in his eighties and retired in England, even though we carry around his work with us just about every day. But he must be awfully pleased his designs are used and seen every day, even though we don’t pay that much attention. Rather a nice way to have your artwork displayed.
And yep, like so much in Canberra, this little treat is free. As are the regular tours of the mint. Or you can take a half hour guided tour of the Stuart Devlin display $10. Might go back or one of those. Part of my current ‘tourist at home’ mission.
Take a look at the coins in your pocket with new eyes – they really are beautiful. And you’ll be more likely to be able to list which animal is on which coin if you happen to get asked that question at an upcoming trivia night.
And for coin buffs, there’s even a new commemorative uncirculated 2 cent coin featuring the original kangaroo design soon to be released, a clear sign that the original design really has stood the test of time. You can register your interest in purchasing one.
Seriously, love this place Canberra. Put this place on your itinerary peeps if you haven’t already been here.