Behind the Design – the Art of Time Travel

Categories: Collect

The design that features on the £5 coin celebrating the reign of Alfred the Great is an unusual – some may even say crude – portrait. It’s a very deliberate style and a depiction that takes us right back to Alfred’s reign and the art and the culture of his time. John Bergdahl, a very experienced coinage artist who has created many designs for The Royal Mint, took his inspiration from a precious artefact that embodies the monarch’s enlightenment and passion for education – the Alfred Jewel.

John Bergdahl has made this kind of numismatic time travel a signature of his work. He is the man behind the 2015 coin commemorating the Magna Carta, which was inspired by medieval art and the seal that was used to formalise the great document. For his 2016 coin marking the Battle of Hastings, he brought the famous Bayeux Tapestry to life, including a depiction of King Harold with an arrow in his eye. He also designed a coin showing Henry VIII’s Mary Rose in 2011, showing the ship as she appeared in the only acknowledged painting of the iconic vessel, streamers and banners aflutter as the majestic ship takes to the sea.

His design for the Alfred the Great 2021 UK £5 Coin is based on the Alfred Jewel, a masterpiece of rock crystal set over gold enamelling, which is now housed in the Ashmolean Museum, the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. Found more than 300 years ago, ploughed up in a Somerset field in 1693, it is one of the most significant royal artefacts to be discovered. Alfred is thought to have used Athelney, which is just a few miles away from where the jewel was unearthed in North Petherton, as a marshland stronghold in his battle against the Vikings.

The jewel is tear-shaped and on its face is a figure wrought in delicate cloisonné enamel, which is believed to represent the sense of sight. It is thought that the jewel may have originally held a pointer or ‘aestel’ to help a reader follow the text in one of the Old English translations of Latin religious texts that Alfred himself commissioned. The jewel is inscribed with the words ‘AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN’, which translates to ‘ALFRED ORDERED ME TO BE MADE’ and indicates a strong connection with the king whose passion for learning is well-documented.

John Bergdahl’s love of history is key to his work and can even be seen in the way he presents his submissions – he is one of very few artists commissioned by
The Royal Mint who still works on and submits plaster models. He is therefore quite used to working closely with our Product Design team, something he continued for this coin with this inclusion of the ‘punch’ lettering. Common during Alfred the Great’s reign, this element was added to coins by hand after they were struck and it is a technique that was painstakingly recreated on this new £5 coin to reflect the style of the period.

As we celebrate more than a thousand years since Alfred the Great’s reign, a combination of the artist’s inspiration, the time-honoured skills of the product designers, and the very latest technology available pays tribute to a truly great king. The coin is available as a gold Proof, silver Proof Piedfort, silver Proof and a Brilliant Uncirculated edition. Each is accompanied by packaging that reveals a timeline of Alfred the Great’s life.

Alfred The Great

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