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This week at The Britannia Coin Company we're thinking about jubilees: both the upcoming Platinum Jubilee and jubilees of the past. We've enjoyed all the new releases from the Royal Mint, tied to the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's accession but did you know the tradition of celebrating these milestones started with Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee?

Victoria's Golden Jubilee

In June 1887 Queen Victoria marked her Golden Jubilee. She had ascended the throne fifty years previously in 1837, following the death of King William IV.

A range of festivities were held to mark the occasion, including a banquet on 20 June attended by fifty foreign kings and princes as well as the governing heads of Britain's overseas colonies and dominions. The following day, crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of Victoria in an open carriage as she traveled to attend a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey.

The 1887 Jubilee was commemorated with a specially commissioned statue bust by Francis John Williamson; an official medal, awarded to participants in the celebrations and new Royal Mail stamps, the first to be issued in two colours. Items like these, as well as the proliferation of mugs and plates sold across the Empire, were retained as souvenirs of an important royal milestone.

For royal fans, however, the ultimate collectors item from Victoria's Golden Jubilee might be an 11-coin specimen set, bearing an infamous portrait of the Queen. These sets also marked the first appearance of the controversial Double Florin as well as a new Half Sovereign design that was quickly revised. They represent a fascinating and problematic moment in British and numismatic history.

1887 Specimen Proof Set

Boxed sets were issued by the Royal Mint in the summer of 1887 and contained four gold coins and seven silver coins, including:

  • 1887 Gold Five Pound
  • 1887 Gold Two Pound
  • 1887 Gold Sovereign
  • 1887 Gold Half Sovereign
  • 1887 Silver Crown
  • 1887 Silver Double Florin
  • 1887 Silver Half Crown
  • 1887 Silver Florin
  • 1887 Silver Shilling
  • 1887 Silver Sixpence
  • 1887 Silver Threepence

Official proof sets - or 'specimen sets' as they were referred to in the past - were first issued in Britain during the reign of George II. Today, proof sets are an annual offer from mints across the world but in the nineteenth century they were only issued when significant changes to the coinage were made, such as when a new portrait was introduced or to coincide with a coronation. Many would have been distributed as official gifts making getting hold of one a matter of who you knew rather than braving a website queuing system.

Jubilee Head Specimen Proof Set 1887 Queen Victoria in original box.

An 1887 specimen proof set in its original box.

Reportedly, 1,881 specimen sets were sold in 1887 though some of the gold coins seem to have been offered individually too. Finding a full set of original Jubilee coins - particularly in high grade in their original box - is a rare pleasure.

In addition to the official proof specimen sets, jewellers created sets for collectors, using circulation-issue versions of the eleven coins to make up a set. These may also come in a high-quality contemporary box.

Gold Five Pound Coin

The largest coin in an 1887 proof set is a 22 carat gold Five Pound coin, sometimes called a Quintuple Sovereign. This piece weighs 36.61 grams and has a diameter of 35 millimeters.

Pattern gold Five Pound coins has previously been struck during the reigns of George III and George IV. Early in Victoria's reign a beautiful pattern £5 was minted in very limited numbers, showing an allegorical depiction of the Queen as a character from Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene. Gold Una and the Lion coins did not circulate but the denomination would in 1887.

The mintage of general circulation 1887 Five Pounds was supposedly 54,000 but the number of proofs is much smaller.

Obverse and reverse of Gold Five Pound 1887 Pistrucci Boehm Golden Ju.bilee Victoria

Gold Five Pound coin from an 1887 specimen set, also available individually.

The gold Two Pound coin, found in the set, is also an early example. Proof Double Sovereigns were first struck in 1820 and first circulated in 1823. The 1887 issue represents only the second time that this denomination appeared as currency.

These two large gold coins are the most sought after in the set, both today and in the late 1800s. As these coins - both in proof and circulated finish - were hard to come by, jewellers offered copies to fill out specimen sets. These 'jewellers copies' and later fakes made in the Middle East in the 1950s and 60s may have the same composition as the originals though 14 and 18 carat gold replicas can also be found. It's important to check these pieces carefully before purchasing.

The 'Jubilee Head' Portrait

All coins found in an 1887 proof set feature a new portrait of Queen Victoria, introduced in this year. It's one of several effigies used on British money during her reign. You can read more about these in another article: Queen Victoria Coinage Portraits: Old, Young, Gothic and More.

The portrait that appears on 1887 coins is an intricate head-and-shoulders bust showing Victoria wearing a veil, a small crown and plenty of jewels. It's very different to the almost un-adorned, neoclassical Young Head, designed by William Wyon but certainly shows the same woman, albeit several decades older. The Jubilee Head has lines about her eyes and a bit of a double chin.

Obverse of coins with Jubilee Head in an 1887 Golden Jubilee Specimen Set.

 Obverses of coins in an 1887 Golden Jubilee specimen set.

The crown that brushes the edge of the coin is the Small Diamond Crown. Victoria had this made in 1870 as a miniature of the unwieldy Imperial State Crown. As part of the Crown Jewels it's currently on public display at the Tower of London. The famous but short-lived 'Gothic Portrait', created for the 1847 silver Crown, had shown Victoria with similarly decorative headgear but the Jubilee Head would be the first widely issued crowned coinage portrait of a British monarch since the reign of King Charles II.

Other symbols of state also feature in the Jubilee Head portrait. On her chest Victoria wears the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, an order in the British honours system given only to women that Victoria established when she became Empress of India in 1878. Below that, just half cropped by the truncation of the portrait is a Garter Star, a decoration associated with the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a senior order of knighthood, dedicated to St George (England's patron saint) that was founded by Edward III in the 1300s.

The decorations point to the achievements of Victoria's reign as well as the historical legacy of monarchy that she embodied. The long lace veil is a more personal touch: it's a nod to the state of deep morning that she adopted after the death of her consort, Prince Albert, in 1861.

She would wear her widows weeds until her death.

Joseph Edgar Boehm

The Jubilee Head portrait was the work of Austrian-born sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm. You can seen his initials - 'J.E.B.' - on the truncation of Victoria's shoulder on her Jubilee coinage.

Boehm's farther was a medal maker and director of the Viennese imperial mint but Joseph's speciality became portrait busts. Working in England, he produced sculptures of contemporary notables as well as equestrian statues including the monument to the Duke of Wellington that still stands at Hyde Park Corner. Many of his commissions came from the royal family with whom he had earned considerable favour with projects for Windsor Castle including a monument to Victoria's farther, Prince Edward for St George's Chapel.

Joseph Edgar Boehm in his London studio in 1884 by Joseph Parking Mayall.

Joseph Edgar Boehm in his London studio in 1884 by Joseph Parking Mayall.

The coinage portrait commission - on a slightly different scale to his more famous works - came in February 1879: years before the Golden Jubilee and was not initially tied to the anniversary. By this point, William Wyon's Young Head portrait had been in circulation for more than forty years and Boehm was employed to create a new effigy: a more accurate depiction of a Queen who would celebrate her sixtieth birthday that year.

It seems that Boehm procrastinated the open ended commission, focusing instead on other projects. The models he had produced by 1880 must have bore some resemblance to the finished work as the small crown was commented upon by those who viewed them. Multiple patterns were struck over the next few years, some with a larger crown but all failing to meet the approval of Victoria and the Deputy Master of the Royal Mint, Sir Charles Fremantle. In 1884 Boehm sought assistance from a former student, the Viennese sculptor, Carl Radnitzky. With more revisions, this design was approved with a view to completion in Victoria's Golden Jubilee year. After the Queen's consent was gained Leonard Charles Wyon, son of William, translated Boehm's models into dies.

'... A Distinct Disfigurement'?

Despite nearly a decade of work of the project, royal approval and round after round of painstaking revisions, the Jubilee Head portrait was viewed with derision from the day it was unveiled, despite high expectations for the issue.

'Those who have seen the new coins are not taken with them'

--- Freeman's Journal of Dublin, 21 June 1887

'… they are singularly poor in design and feeble in execution.'

--- Birmingham Daily Post, 24 June 1887

'The portrait of the Queen is not a bad likeness, though certainly not a pleasing or a dignified one. As to the Crown and the head-dress they are quite unnecessary and a distinct disfigurement.'

--- The Standard (today's Evening Standard), 29 June 1887

The tiny crown - though commonly worn as pictured by Victoria - was the source of much mockery: it certainly looks ready to topple off her head. It's a combination of this, balanced against the Queen's tucked-in, slightly jowly chin, that lends the portrait something of an 'un-regal' air. This is particularly true when compared with the clean-lined Young Head which was still very much in circulation and did not need any adornment to create a distinctive and compelling image of the monarch.

Victoria really did wear a tiny crown and veil, as shown in the Jubilee Head portrait.

Victoria really did wear a tiny crown and veil, as shown in the Jubilee Head portrait.

Unpleasant comments were also made, placing the blame on commissioning a foreign artist, reflecting criticisms of the work of Italian artist Benedetto Pistrucci, made earlier in the century.

Even the Queen disliked the portrait, despite approving it and sought to have it changed. However, replacing a portrait that was already in mass production was no easy feat, so it would not be until after Boehm's death in 1890 that this would be seriously considered.

Saints, Fakes and Double Florins

Though it's easy to focus on the obverse portrait, the reverses of the coins found in 1887 proof sets are similarly fascinating.

Several coins in the specimen set, and in the general circulation Jubilee issues feature a historic Saint George and the dragon reverse, including the gold Five Pound, Double Sovereign and 'full' Sovereign, as well as the silver Crown. This image will be instantly recognisable to Sovereign collectors as the work of Benedetto Pistrucci. He created this engraving of England's patron saint for the first modern Sovereigns, issued in 1817. It had disappeared from British coinage for a half century before being revived in 1873 at the instigation of Charles Fremantle. Pistrucci's Saint, mounted on a horse, sword pointed at a cowering dragon, has been a perennial presence on these gold coins ever since. You can read more about this design in another Britannia Coin Company article: George and the Dragon: Benedetto Pistrucci's Masterpiece.

The garnished and crowned shield of arms reverse of the 1887 Half Sovereign was similar to previous designs used on this gold coin during Victoria's reign. As standard, the value was not mentioned though this practice was extended in this year to the silver Sixpence which bore a superficially similar reverse featuring a crowned shield, surrounded by a garter, its tip dividing the date. The Half Sovereign and the Sixpence both measured 19.3 millimeters in diameter and this, plus the lack of a statement of value meant that the latter could be passed off as the former with a bit of gilding. The problem was quickly recognised and production suspended. Before the end of the year the reverse of the Sixpence was changed back to a unambiguous wreath with the words 'SIX PENCE' in the centre.

1887 Sixpences were often gilded to look like Half Sovereigns.

1887 Sixpences (right) were often gilded to look like similarly sized Half Sovereigns (left).

The Sixpence wasn't the only part of the Golden Jubilee coinage to cause problems. 1887 specimen sets contain a fascinating coin called the Double Florin, worth Four Shillings. The one in the set will bear a reverse featuring crowned shields of arms, arranged in a cruciform pattern with sceptres in the angles. The denomination was introduced in this year but was only minted until 1890 making it one of the shortest-lived of all British coins. The issue with the Double Florin is its similarity in size to a Five Shilling Crown coin. If you're taking cash in a dark and dingy Victorian pub - so the story goes - you might easily accept a Double Florin as a Crown, particularly since neither coin was inscribed with their value. This led to the Double Florin being referred to as 'Barmaid's Grief' or 'Barmaid's Ruin' and a halt in production.

With these controvercies swirling and continued derision of Boehm's Jubilee Head, the Royal Mint appointed a design committee to recommend improvements to the coinage. This group met for the first time in February 1891 and later that year a competition was launched to create a new portrait for Victoria's coinage. The chosen bust was the work of English sculptor and medallist, Sir Thomas Brock and is known to numismatists as the 'Veiled Head', 'Old Head' or 'Widowed Head'. This first appeared on British coinage in 1893 alongside new reverse designs which listed the value.

Reverses of Golden Jubilee 1887 Jubilee Head coins.

Reverses of 1887 coinage: compare the size of the Crown (center right) and the Double Florin (immediately left).

1887 Golden Jubilee specimen sets are a relic of a failed but fascinating Victoria experiment. These proof coins give us an insight into how coinage designs were chosen and how British money was used (and abused) in this period. Scroll down for more Jubilee Head coins as well as a selection of other jubilee issues.

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