Exhibition | Witnesses: Émigré Medallists in Britain

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on November 10, 2018

From the press release (18 September 2018) for the exhibition:

Witnesses: Émigré Medallists in Britain
The British Museum, London, 4 October 2018 — 7 April 2019

Curated by Philip Attwood

Danuta Solowiej, Oxford University Department of Plant Sciences Sibthorp Prize Medal, bronze, 2001 (London: The British Museum); John Roettiers, Charles II Naval Reward Medal, gold, 1665 (London: The British Museum).

The British Museum presents a new exhibition called Witnesses: Émigré Medallists in Britain, sponsored by Spink. This focused exhibition uncovers the invaluable role played by artists from abroad in the development of British medallic art. On display are medals that span six centuries, documenting significant historical moments and commemorating famous British figures. The exhibition uses objects to tell an international story, as it explores the motivations that brought artists to Britain and the ways in which they enlivened this country’s medallic landscape.

The earliest works in the exhibition are from Elizabethan England. It was the Dutch artist Steven van Herwijck who, in 1562, introduced the art of the medal, already well-established on the continent, to Britain’s urban elite. Van Herwijck’s first visit to England was of short duration, but three years later, in 1565, he returned with his wife and children. Medals have been made continuously in this country ever since.

Benedetto Pistrucci, Coronation of George IV, 1821, gold (London: The British Museum).

One of the star objects on display will be a spectacular Waterloo medal conceived by 19th-century Italian gem engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1783–1855). The medal took 30 years to complete and bears the image of the four allied sovereigns: George, Prince Regent, Francis II of Austria, Alexander I of Russia, and King Frederick William III of Prussia.

Although the story of each medallist who arrived over the centuries is unique, for many a position at the Royal Mint was coveted and considered the ultimate goal. Pistrucci was successful in this ambition as he arrived from Italy in 1815 and became Chief Medallist at the Royal Mint. He remains a well-known medalist and coin-engraver, renowned for producing a number of famous designs during his career, most notably the George and Dragon for the sovereign.

During the 1930s a number of medallists fleeing Nazi oppression sought refuge in Britain. This was a time when few British artists engaged with the medium, and so the contributions made to medallic art by Fred Kormis, Artur Loewental, and Paul Vincze (from Germany, Austria and Hungary respectively) have a special significance. Vincze summed up the question of nationality in 1975 when he stated, “I am Hungarian. My wife is French. We are British.” This exhibition will showcase Vincze’s medals commemorating victory in 1945, the coronation of 1953, and anniversaries of the battle of Trafalgar and the resettlement of Jews in Britain. Alongside these will be Loewental’s commemorative medal of Winston Churchill, inscribed “his spirit saved Britain.” Together these objects reveal the ways in which artists from abroad identified strongly with the country to which they had come.

This display will also reveal that while their skill was undeniable, the presence of artists from abroad sometimes led to rivalry with British-born medallists. Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, London-born Thomas Simon (c.1623–1665) found himself in direct competition with John (formerly Jan) Roettiers (1631–1703), whilst the hostility between Pistrucci and William Wyon remained in place throughout the first half of the 19th century.

Bringing the exhibition up to present times, medals conceived by artists working today will also be on display. Medals by contemporary artist Danuta Solowiej will include a commission from the University of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences, with a beautiful rendition of the Iris germanica. Solowiej learned the art of medal making in Poland and has now been working in London for thirty years. The exhibition also celebrates works by Asian artists Dhruva Mistry RA from India and a young silversmith from Korea, Kyosun Jung, who is currently working in London.

It is generally recognised that the story of British art before the 19th century is, to a great extent, the story of artists arriving from other countries. Witnesses: Émigré Medallists in Britain brings together a selection of objects to reveal that this also true of medallic art. Drawing on the British Museum’s rich medal collection, this exhibition celebrates the contributions made by foreign artists both past and present.

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