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George William de Saulles is the artist behind the portrait of Edward VII used on UK coins from 1902 until the end of the King's short reign. But what other coins did this British medallist design? What's his connection to the Old Head coinage? And how did he get the top job at the Royal Mint?

Early Years In Birmingham

George William de Saulles was born in Birmingham in 1862, the hometown of a number of notable British engravers including William Wyon. His father was a glass merchant but his grandfather had royal connections, serving as a Page of the Presence (an attendant on VIP visitors) in the households of George IV and William IV.

George must have shown an artistic talent early because he became a student at the Birmingham Municipal School of Art, an important centre for the Arts and Crafts movement. Under the tutelage of the headmaster, Edward R Taylor, de Saulles was awarded several prizes and a scholarship. He didn't take this up and was instead apprenticed to a local die-sinker, producing labels for goods produced in the northern industrial centre.

By the age of 22, de Saulles was in London under the employ of John Pinches Medallists before moving back home to work for the elderly Joseph Moore. Moore himself had transitioned from cutting dies for buttons to designing medals over the course of a long career, mirroring the development of his student's artistic practice from commercial goods to official coins.

Engraving Victoria's Old Head Coinage

In 1892 de Saulles landed a job at the Royal Mint, then based opposite the Tower of London. Annual reports from Sir Charles Fremantle, then the Deputy Master of the Mint, name de Saulles 'Engraver to the Mint' and it seems he took on many of the recently deceased Leonard Charles Wyon's duties.

Correspondence shows that de Saulles was soon at work engraving dies for what would become known as the 'Old Head' or 'Widowed Head' coinage of 1893, featuring a new portrait of Queen Victoria by Thomas Brock

Thomas Brock's Widowed Head portrait of Victoria, engraved by de Saulles, as it appears on an 1893 Shilling.

Thomas Brock's Widowed Head portrait of Victoria, engraved by de Saulles, as it appears on an 1893 Shilling.

Brock and de Saulles' crowned and veiled Old Head is much admired and was used for the remainder of Victoria's reign. As well as appearing on coinage and commemorative medals it can also be seen in modified form on Victorian campaign medals like the India Medal (instituted 1896), the reverse of which was designed by de Saulles. He also crafted reverses for East and Central Africa Medal (1899), the Queen's Sudan Medal (1899) and the Queen's South Africa Medal (1900), all of which feature unique portraits of Victoria to the obverse.

In 1899 de Saulles produced the last Great Seal for Queen Victoria, used to approve state documents.

De Saulles' Britannia: Trade Dollars and Florins

De Saulles' original coinage designs in the 1890s includes dies for several colonial coins including the British Dollar for India and copper coinage for British East Africa. He was also the artist behind the British Trade Dollar, minted from 1895 with a full-length portrait of Britannia to the obverse. The female personification of the British Isles had previously been shown seated but she stands proud on these silver coins, issued in the high days of the British Empire. Some 270 million were struck for use in Asia to reduce reliance on local currencies, their reverse taking inspiration from eastern design.

Obverse and reverse of a 1930 British Trade Dollar using the original 1895 designs by George William de Saulles.

Obverse and reverse of a 1930 British Trade Dollar using the original 1895 designs by George William de Saulles.

The model for de Saulles' Trade Dollar Britannia was Lady Susan Hicks Beach, second daughter of Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and ex officio Master of the Royal Mint, later 1st Earl St Aldwyn. Interestingly, Lady Susan was a close friend of the beautiful Princess Hélène of Orléans who was nearly the wife of Prince Albert Victor, the future Edward VII's eldest son.

After Edward came to the throne in 1901, Lady Susan would take a break from her travels with the Princess to model for a new Florin design. Again in the guise of Britannia she stands at the prow of a ship, facing into the wind, holding a trident and a Union Jack shield. In her fluid, billowing robes we can see the influence of Art Nouveau and more particularly the style of the French medallist Louis-Oscar Roty, creator of La Semeuse ('The Sower'), seen on contemporary French coins and stamps. In turn, de Saulles’ Britannia provides a clear inspiration for the later engraving by Philip Nathan which graces the reverse of The Royal Mint's Britannia bullion coins. 

The Florin reverse was just one of the designs that de Saulles created for Edward VII's coinage: he was also the artist behind the reverses of the Halfcrown and Shilling. He's best remembered, however, for his portrait of the new King.

King Edward VII's Coinage Portrait

De Saulles was commissioned to create a new royal coinage effigy very soon after Edward VII's succession. He was granted two sittings with the King, the first taking place on 21 February 1901, less than a month after Victoria's death.

Outside of his collaboration with Thomas Brock, de Saulles would likely have designed and engraved his early work. For the 1902 coinage, de Saulles utilised a Janvier reducing machine or pantograph, imported from Paris, which would have allowed him to translate larger models onto steel dies.

The portrait that de Saulles rendered using this new equipment sits in contrast with the last royal effigy he had worked on. Brock's depiction of Victoria did not rely solely on the Queen's imperious countenance to communicate regality but added a crown and some bejewelled decorations for good measure. De Saulles' depiction of Edward VII is free of accoutrements, shaking off the veil of his mother's long mourning period as well as the symbols of office.

Edward's coinage, first issued in his coronation year, shows the new King facing right with short cropped hair and a full beard. The portrait is truncated at the neck and de Saulles' initials - 'De S' - appear below.

King Edward VII as he appears on an NGC graded 1902 Double Sovereign.

King Edward VII as he appears on an NGC graded 1902 Double Sovereign.

How Was De Saulles' Work Recieved?

Prior to the portrait being unveiled there was some criticism levelled against the Mint for appointing a 'foreigner' to design official British coinage. This was based on de Saulles' surname - his grandfather was either French or Swiss - and was reminiscent of that aimed at Benedetto Pistrucci nearly a century before but this time with even less foundation. These complaints seem to have faded quite fast after the new coinage entered circulation.

Photo of George William de Saulles from The Illustrated London News, 22 June 1901.

Photo of George William de Saulles printed in The Illustrated London News, 22 June 1901. Credit: Look and Learn.

De Saulles had little opportunity to enjoy the acclaim. He passed away suddenly in July 1903 at the age of 41 while in the midst of preparing a new royal seal. He was eulogised in the Numismatic Chronicle by his former employer, John H Pinches, who included with his biography a list of coins, medals, plaques and seals created by de Saulles during his career.

Old volumes of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography present a critical entry on de Saulles. The author, Warwick William Wroth, says that his work had 'no great scope for innovation and the play of fancy'.

While it's fair to say that some of his 1902 reverses harken back to the coinage of King George IV, it seems wrong to dismiss de Saulles work. It certainly stacks up against that of the more famous artists commissioned by the Royal Mint in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly when we pit his royal portrait against Joseph Edgar Boehm's slightly silly Jubilee Head. It's interesting to note that a Royal Mint staff member would not create a royal effigy for a good century (Jody Clark broke that trend) and the post of Chief Engraver would sit vacant for decades after de Saulles death.

To address the lack of 'fancy' in de Saulles work, it's worth thinking back to his twin Britannias as well as defending the cause of deceptively simple design when it comes to mass produced objects. De Saulles' portrait of Edward VII is clean-lined and highly recognisable. His beard reflects the fashions of the era but the choice to show no crown or other symbols of state is an interesting one. Victoria, Edward's mother, had been shown both crowned and uncrowned in her coinage portraits but the tradition since the seventeenth century had been for bare royal heads or laurel wreaths. De Saulles looked to the past and set the standard for the first part of the twentieth century: George V and George VI are both shown crown-less and truncated in coinage portraits that bear a notable similarity to de Saulles' engraving of Edward VII.

Edward's reign was fairly short and it's pretty easy to acquire high grade examples of most of his coinage. Gold Double Sovereigns and Five Sovereigns from his coronation year were struck in limited numbers. Certain branch mint Half Sovereigns are particularly sought after. Of his silver coinage, it's his early Halfcrowns and the 1905 Shilling that are hard to find. All of these bear de Saulles' underrated portrait to the obverse.

Frequently Asked Questions

The value of Edward VII coins depends on several factors including the date, the condition and where the coin was minted. High grade branch mint Sovereigns are very sought after. The current gold price will also impact how much your King Edward coins are worth so it’s worth checking out live prices before you sell.

The value of you Edward VII Sovereign depends on the date, where it was minted and the coin's condition. High grade coins (those with little wear and few scratches) are sought-after by collectors, as are coins struck in Australia and Canada, rather than in London. Contact The Britannia Coin Company today for a quote.

Gold Sovereigns struck between 1902 and 1910 featuring a portrait of Edward VII can be very valuable. Carefully examine the ground beneath the dragon on the 'tails' side of the coin. If you can see a tiny letter you could be in luck: this indicates a coin struck in Australia or Canada - the latter are particularly valuable.

The value of Sovereigns minted during the reign of Edward VII can vary drastically. Sovereigns minted at branch mints in Australia and Canada are rarer than those struck in London. Ottawa Mint and some Melbourne Mint Sovereigns can command high prices, particularly examples in good condition.

Selling Edward VII gold Sovereigns is easy with The Britannia Coin Company. Visit our Sell Your Coins page for a free, no obligation quote for your old coins. We offer market leading prices for Edward VII Sovereigns and the best thing is you don’t have to leave your house: simply post your coins to us and get a fast deposit.

The rarest Sovereigns of King Edward VII's reign were minted at the Ottawa Mint in Canada in 1908, 1909 and 1910. You can identify these by the tiny 'C' on the ground below the dragon on the reverse. Other branch mint Edward VII Sovereigns are also sought after including those struck in Sydney and Melbourne.

During the reign of King Edward VII (ruled 1901 to 1910) gold Sovereigns were minted in London as well as at branch mints across the British Empire including three in Australia: Sydney, Perth and Melbourne. In 1908 a new mint was opened in Ottawa, Canada. Sovereigns issued at this mint are quite rare.

Contact The Britannia Coin Company to get a free, no obligation quote for your gold King Edward VII Sovereign. We buy these coins for market leading prices. Visit our Sell Your Coins page for more information on how you can sell your silver and gold Edward VII coins from home and get cash fast.

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