2012 marks the 60th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, who has ruled the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations since her father, George VI, died in 1952. The Queen currently counts 15 Commonwealth nations, aside from the U.K., with another 16 who had historically been part of the Commonwealth but are no longer under British rule. This means, of course, that Queen Elizabeth II has had the opportunity to appear on more coins of different nationalities, monetary systems, and base metals than probably any other ruler ever. In fact, I can quite confidently say she is the only national ruler to have shared legal tender with Megatron, evil leader of the Decepticons. That’s not anything to sneeze at.
Because the royal profile is traditionally used for the obverse, alternating direction with each succeeding ruler, the reverse of these coins are the ones that get special design attention. Unlike the Washington on the U.S. quarter, designing coins with the image of a living, breathing person brings up the problem of having to ‘update’ the Queen’s effigy once in a while. The countries of the Commonwealth are responsible for their own coins ultimately, and most do adhere to the pound coin designs. The official obverse effigy for Queen Elizabeth II has been updated exactly four times — which is more than her postage stamps have.
The first coins depicting the Queen appeared in 1953, as designed by sculptor Mary Gillick. The septegenarian Gillick beat sixteen other designers with a profile of a youthful, crownless Elizabeth with a small wreath on her head. Her main competition was from sculptor Cecil Thomas, who had sculpted many medals and seals for the Crown before and was believed to be the front-runner in the competition. Although Thomas was passed over for the U.K. coins, the effigy he designed, depicting a young Elizabeth II wearing the Imperial State Crown, was used on some Commonwealth coins.
In the 1960s, the U.K. decided to update the Queen’s effigy during the move to decimal coinage. Sculptor Arnold Machin created the design in 1964, working from photos by Lord Snowdon. The Queen wanted a full bust, as opposed to cut-off at the neck like in many coin designs. Rather than the absent crown of Gillick or the Crown Jewels of Thomas’ design, Machin’s Queen Elizabeth II wore a light diamond crown, given to her by her grandmother Queen Mary, called the “Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara”. Machin adapted this design for postage stamps, which, too, needed a new design for the change in currency.
In 1984, artist Raphael Maklouf created a new effigy, which began appearing on coins in 1985. This, too, started as a photo by Lord Snowdon, and then was finished in an in-person sitting with the Queen herself. Despite the close access to the queen during design, Maklouf’s design was criticized for appearing much younger than the Queen’s actual age. The Queen’s crown in this design is the George IV State Diadem, which Machin had already replaced on postage stamps in 1966.
The last, current effigy was designed by Ian Rank-Broadley and first used in 1998. This new crouped design portrays a mature queen, removed from the youth of her ascent to the throne in 1952, and as a naturalistic counterpoint to the more traditional Maklouf design. The Queen’s crown is again the “Girls of Great Britain” tiara.
These are, of course, not the only four depictions of Queen Elizabeth II used on coins. Although, depending on the country, the Queen’s head may be legally required to appear on the currency, each country has departed from the official U.K. designs. Canada, too, has had four different effigies in use, but they have used their own designs over the years. In particular, the current Queen used on Canadian coins has no headwear at all, a first for the Queen’s coins. If you want to start collecting coins with the Queen, a good place to start might be with the newest one: Ian Rank-Broadley has designed a new obverse specifically for the Queen’s Jubilee. This design shows a caped Queen, in full bust, extending to the outside edge of the coin, and wearing her favorite crown, the “Girls of Great Britain” tiara again.