mother posed as Britannia, with a ruler for a
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
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
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
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."