Numismatica beckons…



Craft Victoria 1996

Review of The Melbournese Jewellers' Annual Coin Exhibition 1996, Maker's Mark in December 1996

Methoughts the Shilling that lay upon the Table reared it self upon its Edge, and turning the Face towards me, opened its Mouth, and in a soft Silver Sound gave me the following Account of his Life and Adventure.

I was born, says he, on the Side of a Mountain, near a little village of Peru, and made a Voyage to England in a Ingot, under the Convoy of Sir Francis Drake…

Thus begins the autobiography of an English shilling. Richard Steele published this witty narrative device in the article 'The life and adventures of a shilling' for Tatler Magazine. It's amazing adventures take us from the mountains of Peru to an early eighteenth-century Apothecary's shop in England. What tales would today's coins tell?

Some remarkable stories were seeded in December last year, when the Melbournese Jeweller's Group presented an exhibition of members' coins at Maker's Mark Gallery. Twenty-eight jewellers made designs for coins using 10 grams of silver which were struck with the MJC date and symbol.

As a defining event for an significant craft collective, the exhibition reveals a very Melbournese mix of humour and tradition. Engaging ideas struck with material care seem fitting evidence of the life jewellers give to the city of Melbourne. The CBD, particuarly its lanes and pokey old buildings, comes alive energy provided by the new generation of artisans.

The coin designs ranged from quirky to earnest. A few items appealed particularly to my own taste. Karl Millard's coin, commemorating the discovery of anti-gravity in Finland, used the circular format quote appropriately to accentuate a physical vortex. Anna Davern's Ice-Block gave a literal reading of the phrase `cold hard cash' with a simple yet effective design. The variegated surface of Marcus Davidson's Coneman of the Burbarians exploited the close physical contact coins have with their owners. And Justin Böehme's Hive drew on a traditional crest design to evoke plenty. Other coins would appeal to different tastes, and there may be some which speak more directly to the hand, rather than the eye.

The depth of talent drawn on in this exhibition suggests further, even more ambitious developments. The first temptation is to imagine how this strike might be promoted in Melbourne's cultural calendar. Such a festival activity, call it Numismatica for argument's sake, might employ other artists whose work complements coins. Besides the ubiquitous city busker whose hat provides a temporary home for loose change, it would be a suitable opportunity for celebrating the city's fountains, otherwise vulnerable to development.

Coins imply an incidental intimacy between strangers of city. As evident in Steele's acocunt, who knows the hands that have fondled this coin before it came to me? Like the air we share, coins bear witness to fate that is shared by people occupying the same space. To celebrate this communal link would be an useful antidote to the mock Vesuvius planned for the 'circus of greed' across the river.
The second expansion concerns the design of coins. The `deep grammar' of numismatics entails a division between head and tail. This old-fashioned hierarchical arrangement contains a rich vein of creative opportunities, one limited by the mandatory use of the MJC symbol in the exhibition. The royal obverse will become an issue particularly if by chance Australia the Queen of England vacates the other side of the coin. Jewellers might like to start offering alternatives.

The Melbournese Jewellers Annual Coin Exhibition is welcome evidence of a collective maturity in this city's artistic community. It explores the language of metal in today's world with creativity and purpose. As an event, it seems time to confess this trade secret and let the rest of Melbourne get their five cents worth.