Adding Depth – The Coins of John W. Mills
[ John Reflects on His Work - image by Mik ]
Labelling John W. Mills as a ‘coin designer’ would be on par with referring to Da Vinci as ‘that guy who did the Mona Lisa’. It would be rather like latching onto about one percent of an artist’s creative worth and missing out completely on everything else. Unfortunately, with a limited amount of space in my feature, this is precisely what I must do to a certain degree.
Primarily I went over to speak to John about his coin designs and his experiences whilst working for The Royal Mint. I must therefore try to skip over the decades of jaw-dropping work I saw whilst visiting him and I shouldn’t even mention the huge impact John W. Mills must have had on so very many up and coming sculptors. However, being an artist myself and having been around a good few creative sorts, I did think I understood the meaning of the word ‘prolific’….. until John ushered me into his studio that is. It is difficult to describe just how many works I saw that day and how many amazing achievements I heard him talking about. To say it was a pleasure would be a gross understatement and I know without doubt it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
John created coins for The Royal Mint for around ten years. The D-Day Landings fifty pence was his first accepted design and this also remains his personal favourite. He wanted to introduce the same principles of sculpting into coinage - and very much succeeded. This is precisely why fifty pences and two pound coins with John’s artwork on them have such depth and clarity. It is also why they are still some of the best coins we have ever had in our everyday change.
Over the course of his time with The Mint, John went on to create two fifty pences (D-Day Landings, EU Stars) and three two pound coins (Dove of Peace, Football, DNA). If things had panned out differently he would also have been responsible for several other coins too. He showed me alternative designs for Marconi, The Gunpowder Plot and Rugby. It is a great shame that The Mint failed to accept any of these as they were far better than the ones we all know so well today. John’s ideas for the Roger Bannister fifty pence were far superior to the one that was actually used and Bannister himself preferred them as well. John told me his reaction had been - ‘I’m really not very keen on this new fifty pence – there is far more about me than my legs!’
The last John W. Mills design to be used was the DNA two pound coin in 2003. By this time John had grown weary of the direction in which The Mint were heading and decided to take a step back. Management and attitudes were changing and so was our coinage. Designs were becoming far less three-dimensional and more like flat drawings; something quite abhorrent to a man whose passions lay in form and substance. Whilst John still dabbled in designing several medals, he primarily went back to his greatest love of all - sculpture.
Many of the questions I had prepared for my interview proved to be wholly unnecessary during my time with John purely because he provided me with such a wealth of information. I hardly had to ask very much at all. He recognised my genuine interest in coins and saw that I had a very real admiration for his work. When I did manage to think of the odd thing to ask, he always gave me clear and concise answers. The only exception to this was with one of my very last questions…… ‘What do you think of the coins they are putting out these days? And the sheer amount they are releasing?’ John, being a true gentleman, simply gave me a wry smile and replied, ‘Oh I don’t know…. People seem to like them all, don’t they?’
John W. Mills is inarguably one of the finest coin designers we have had. His work still commands a huge amount of respect and most collectors would agree that his releases have been among the best of all. John’s coins are also unique since they act as an introductory bridge into the world of sculpture.
This really was an extraordinary few hours with an absolute gentleman. John W. Mills has achieved so very much yet he remains so remarkably humble. They just don’t mint designers like this anymore.
© Article and images (except where stated) copyright Mik Smith 2019