Part 2: 1874-1904


Portrait Medallion of Sir. J. Evans by F. Bowcher (1887)

The year 1874 very clearly marked the beginning of a new era in the Society’s affairs, for in that year the Society elected as its President John Evans, who was to be still the holder of that office when, thirty years later, in 1904, the Society obtained its Royal Charter, and, indeed, Evans continued to be President until his death in 1908. The period is marked by an equally valuable element of continuity in the secretaryship which was held by Grueber also from 1874 to 1908. For the record, in something over a century from 1874 the Society has had only five secretaries. In the first period of its history the Society, in the first flush of enthusiasm, had expanded from its original 21 founding members in 1836 to a membership of 155 in 1839, but the next two decades saw a steady decrease to only 59 members in 1859. Lack of continuity of direction may have had something to do with the Society’s failure to flourish, for in the early days the Presidency was held for only two years, and it is noticeable that Vaux’s long term as President from 1855 to 1874 brought a growth of membership from the all-time-low of 59 to 153. The improved quality of the Numismatic Chronicle of which a new series began in 1861 was undoubtedly also a factor in the revival of interest in the subject, with a consequent increase in membership. The Evans era saw the Society continue to prosper to the extent that by 1904 membership at 290 has practically doubled, and some attempt will be made below to assess how much of it was owed to Evans. The Society also suffered in its early years from the consequences of a somewhat nomadic existence with a succession of moves to increasingly less acceptable and convenient accommodation, but in 1874 at the beginning of Evans’s presidency rooms were secured at the Royal Society of Literature at 4 St. Martin’s Lane which provided quarters both for meeting and for the library. In 1885 new premises were obtained at the Royal Asiatic Society in Albemarle Street where the Society remained for the remainder of the present period.

The latter part of the nineteenth century was one of economic stability in this country and of relative prosperity, at least for the class from which the Society drew its members and in these circumstances and with a steadily expanding membership the Society was able to maintain the publication of a regular series of substantial volumes of the Numismatic Chronicle and to hold its subscription rate at one guinea. Indeed it was after considerable agonised discussion that Council in 1888 very apologetically recommended raising the life subscription from 12 to 15 guineas, and agreed, with expressions of regret to the raising of the annual rent of its room in 1891 to the figure of £30.

The institution of the Society’s medal in 1883 ‘to be Awarded not oftener than once in each year, to some person highly distinguished for services to numismatics’. Evans dilated at some length on the medal in his Presidential Address. ‘Though at first I did not eagerly accept their view (the proponents of the idea in Council), the hope that such a medal might both stimulate the ambition of the young numismatist and also afford a means of recognition of the labours of the veterans in our science, has moved me to take upon myself to offer a pair of dies for the medal to the Society’. He went on to describe the evolution of the design of the medal.

The principal device on the obverse, the Tres Monetae, is the time-honoured emblem of the Society, which has figured upon its seal ever since its foundation… the general design being borrowed from a medallion of Severus Alexander in the British Museum . In the exergue are the words MON. AVG., and the epithets around, TESTIS TEMORUM, NUNCIA VETVSTATIS, VITA MEMORIAE are taken from the engraved frontispiece of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, published in 1611. These, three of the “proper titles: of “the Mistresse of Man’s life, grave Historie”, are thus Englished, “Time’s Witnesse, Herald of Antiquity, and Life of Memory”. As symbols in the exergue are the pincers or pinches of Mr. Pinches, the engraver, and my own crest of the elephant’s head couped. The wreath on the reverse is taken from a large brass coin of Caligula, and the lettering and arrangement of the inscription are after the new-year medallion of Antoninus Pius.

The first medal was awarded to Charles Roach Smith for his services to numismatic science, more especially in connection with the Romano-British series. In presenting the medal Evans commented that

‘it is satisfactory to think that the recipient is one who was an original member of the Society when it was founded, now more than forty-six years ago.’

In 1887 the Society celebrated its Golden Jubilee. Technically this anniversary fell in 1886, for the foundation meeting was held in December 1836 (and indeed the Society’s centenary was celebrated in 1936), but 1887 could be justified also, since the first ordinary meeting was held in January 1837, and by so doing a coincidence between the Golden Jubilee of the Society and of Queen Victoria was obtained. The occasion was marked in two ways. First, Council unanimously decided to award the medal that year to John Evans ‘for his distinguished services to the Science of Numismatics, more especially in connection with the British, Anglo-Saxon, English an Roman series’ and to have it struck in gold. Next, it was arranged that a medal be struck for distribution to members. The eventual medal was not quite what had been originally envisaged, as Evans in some embarrassment explained.

The medal was [resented to Sir John Evans, President of the Numismatic Society of London, in 1887 A design was proposed by which the Jubilee of her Majesty would have been commemorated on the obverse, where her portrait would have appeared, and the Jubilee of the Society would have been recorded on the reverse. The Council however, with what I am afraid may appear greater loyalty to their President than to their Sovereign, determined that the portrait and name of our President should be shown on the obverse, alleging as precedent that when the Society was founded a medal was struck with the portrait of the first President, Dr. Lee. Into the discussion of this subject I could hardly enter, and I found myself in a contemptible minority in upholding the first design.

From the minutes it appears that Miss Casella was commissioned to make the relief portrait, and Miss Lydia Gay to make a relief cast. The accounts show that Miss Gay, who was a medallist in her own right, was paid for her work, but, as no payment to Miss Casella is noted, it remains uncertain who actually created the portrait. The medal bears only the name of Pinches who produced the dies.

The respect and affection with which the society regarded its President was demonstrated again in 1899. It was realised that Evans who had been appointed K.C.B. in 1892 had, in 1899, been a member of the Society for 50 years and its President for 25, and the occasion was marked by the presentation to him of a portrait medal, made and given by Frank Bowcher, a medallist and also a member of the Society. Sir John’s comment was that

‘the roundness of the figures, half-a-century in the one case and a quarter-of-a-century in the other, adds a kind of cryptic charm to the occasion, and suggests that in 1849 my fellow-members must have offered up some Romano- Hibernian vows in the form of SIC L SIC XXV, which are now being fulfilled’.

When, in 1861, the Numismatic Chronicle was taken over by the Society and began a new series, Evans became an editor, and continued this duty alongside the Presidency until his death. The editorship at that time was conducted by a triumvirate, as indeed it continued to be until 1965. Since the Chronicle right up to 1950 appeared as four and latterly two parts per year, editing must have been a continuous operation. Dame Joan Evans in Time and Chance, her account of part of the Evans family history, says of her father ‘The editorship involved him endless correspondence. His coadjutor, Madden of the Coin Room, would send him almost daily letters of surprising dullness about proofs, plates and papers, and the minor squabbles of the Museum’.

Undoubtedly the Society’s principal contribution to numismatics continued to be the provision of a forum for the exhibition of new material and the presentation and discussion of papers, and even more important the maintenance of a periodical for the publication and dissemination to a wider audience of these and other papers. The analysis and review of the content of the Numismatic Chronicle in the period 1874 to 1904 which follows is by no means exhaustive, but indicates the fields of greatest interest and the more important contributions in each.

The series to which the Numismatic Chronicle of this period made its most distinguished contribution in terms both of quantity and quality is undoubtedly the Greek coinage. This was the period which saw the preparation and publication of the earlier volumes of the British Museum Catalogue, and many of the contributions either represent preparatory work for, or further developments consequent on, the series.

The Society throughout the whole of this period was presided over by Evans, and is inevitably closely identified with the personality and achievements of Evans. His numismatic reputation would have been assured for all time had he written nothing more than his Coinage of the Ancient Britons, but he wrote much more on a wide variety of subjects. He himself had occasion to classify his other work amounting to 100 articles in the Numismatic Chronicle. No one has ever served the Society for so long in such a variety of capacities. Evans was elected a member in 1849, from 1856 to 1874 he was one of the Secretaries, he was an editor of the Numismatic Chronicle from 1861 until his death, and President from 1874, also until his death in 1908. That the Society grew in stature as a scholarly body in this period obviously owes much to the happy setting, a Society flourishing as regards membership, finance, and publication possibilities, might not have existed without Evans. His own not inconsiderable numismatic contribution, coupled with the knowledge and experience derived from a long term of office provided the Society with a President who commanded respect and confidence, qualities which were to stand the Society in good stead in the storm and dissension that broke about it in the first years of this century.

The event which precipitated a crisis in the Society’s affairs was the publication of a paper by W.J. Andrew on ‘The Numismatic History of the Reign of Henry I’ which occupied the whole volume of NC 1901. The dissension which followed the publication of a critical outside review in NC 1902 was to have important consequences. The first was the formation, largely as a consequence of the efforts of Carlyon-Britton and Lawrence , of a new Society, the British Numismatic Society which held its inaugural meeting on 30 November 1903 .

Whatever indifference the Society may subsequently have affected towards the emergence of a new society, the discussions during the summer of 1903 towards this end elicited a prompt ‘one-up-manship’ response. As soon as the new session began in October 1903 it was agreed to make application to the Privy Council for a Royal Charter; and it is interesting to note that as early as 1887, on the occasion of the Society’s Jubilee, the idea had been mooted but turned down on grounds of expense. It can reasonably be deduced that it was now that Evans’s standing in the academic and archaeological world was of great service to the Society his long career had attracted many distinctions from universities and institutions, not least the Presidency of the Society of Antiquaries. In any event the grant of the charter followed quickly, the Letters Patent being dated 22 February 1904 , and Evans was able to inform Council that the King (Edward VII) was pleased to extend the royal patronage to the Society. The costs involved were met by subscription from individual members, Evans himself contributing £100. In the autumn of 1903 the Society also arranged another status booster. Taking advantage of the visit to this country of King Victor Emanuel of Italy, Council anticipated the normal time for considering the award of the Society’s medal and voted that the medal, struck, exceptionally, in gold be awarded to the King in recognition of his contribution to numismatics in the formation of his collection and its publication in the volumes of the Corpus Nummorum Italicorum. A deputation waited on the King at Windsor and handed over the medal.

The members of the RNS at the Royal Charter dinner in 1904

The members of the society who attended the dinner at the Holborn Restaurant to celebrate the Royal Charter in 1904, including the president Sir J. Evans, B.V. Head and G.F. Hill

It is interesting to observe the reaction of the new Society. At the inaugural meeting of the British Numismatic Society it resolved also to apply for a Royal Charter, but received a reply that the Society was at present too young to warrant consideration. In October 1904 the King of Italy is recorded as accepting an invitation to become the first Royal member, and similarly in November the King of Portugal also consented to become a Royal member.

To celebrate the granting of the Royal Charter a dinner was given by the President at the Holborn Restaurant on 20 May 1904 and was attended by the officers and members of Council, Honorary Fellows, and a few ordinary Fellows. It is fortunate that a photograph taken on the occasion survives, and, fortunately, a print of this was annotated with the identification of all the participants. It is thus possible to see gathered together many of the leading figures to whose work, in respect both of contributions to numismatic knowledge and service to the Society, the flourishing condition of the now Royal Numismatic Society at the opening of the twentieth century was largely due.

RNS obtaining Royal Charter in 1904

In May 1904 the society obtained its Royal Charter. To celebrate the event, a dinner was given by the president J. Evans to the Council at the Holborn Restaurant in central London