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My mother posed as Britannia, with a ruler for a trident
By Virginia Ironside

What I most remember about my father designing the decimal coins in 1962 was the secrecy surrounding it all.

As an artist – he was a painter and taught life-drawing at the Royal College of Art – he'd been chosen as one of many designers to submit designs to a Royal Mint Committee, but decimalisation had not been announced and it was essential that no one knew anything about it.

And when his designs were finally chosen, we lived a kind of cloak-and-dagger life. The coins were first designed on paper, and then worked in reverse into large deep circles of plaster.

They would then be cast back to positive and my father would work on them, and then cast them back to negative and so on.

He used to sit hunched over his drawing board in the sitting room, jabbing away at the plaster with a sculpture tool, peering at the tiniest detail through a large magnifying glass.

Whenever anyone came around, even the window cleaner, odd bits of cloth had hastily to be thrown over the designs, and the plaster casts were stacked out of sight on the balcony.

Everything was done on the telephone and letters arrived marked "strictly private."

It wasn't easy to keep everything in the dark because the house was full of people.

I was a bolshie teenager living upstairs in our house in South Kensington, my grandmother lived in the basement and my stepmother was looking after two tiny daughters.

One of the girls got up early one the morning and was found merrily digging a sculpture tool into one of the plasters my father had been painstakingly working on.

Eventually, one day two friends saw the casts. "You're designing decimals!" they said. "You haven't seen a thing," growled my father. "If you say anything, they'll put me in the Tower!"

So far so good, but in 1966 James Callaghan, the new Chancellor, announced that we would be switching to decimal.

He also announced that the previous design decision should be scrapped and there should be an open competition with everyone submitting designs anonymously.

After fortifying himself with a couple of gin and tonics, my father nobly started all over again. He was determined to win for a second time. He did dozens of designs.

My stepmother remembers being faced, once, with 15 St George's. "Which do you like best?" my father asked. "St George naked, or St George with armour?"

Sometimes she would pose for Britannia, holding a ruler instead of a trident, as my father would command "Back a bit!" "Forward a bit!" to get the posture right.

In the end, when the plasters were ready, a man in a peaked cap in an official car collected them in a flat box, "rather like a pizza," said my stepmother.

His four sets of designs were submitted, under a pseudonym, to a committee which included Lord Clark, John Betjeman and the Duke of Edinburgh.

The conclusion was that Arnold Machin won the competition to do the Queen's portrait, but my father was commissioned to design the reverses. They finally made their appearance in 1968.

My 39-year-old half-brother's name is Christian Decimus Ironside, in tribute to the coins.

I remember my father explaining why he never signed his coins. "There are three reasons really," he said.

"The first is that it would spoil the design of the coin. The second is that it's arrogant."

And the third, he said fixing a small cigar into a long black holder, "is that it is even more arrogant not to sign them."

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