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US Commemorative Coin Series: Quick Bits #18 - Raleigh's Portrait

 
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 Posted 04/19/2021  8:23 pm Show Profile   Bookmark this topic Add commems to your friends list Get a Link to this Message
The 1937 Roanoke Colony Memorial half dollar was issued to jointly commemorate the 350th anniversary of Sir Walter Raleigh's attempt at establishing a permanent colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and the August 18, 1587 birth of Virginia Dare.

I have long chuckled over the stories about how William Marks Simpson, the coin's designer, depicted the popular actor - Errol Flynn - as Raleigh on the coin. In his fantastic 1971 book, Numismatic Art in America, Cornelius Vermeule remarked about the resemblance, but then Anthony Swiatek and Walter Breen upped the ante in their The Encyclopedia of U.S. Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins by declaring that it was actually Flynn's portrait on the coin. (Personal note: I have both of the aforementioned volumes in my library and heartily recommend both to all with an interest in US Commemorative coinage.)

I grant that Flynn was popular and in the public eye at the time Simpson worked on the designs for the Roanoke half dollar. He had been launched into the realm of "movie star" with the release of Captain Blood in 1935 - his good looks certainly made it easier for his star to rise! - and it's possible that Flynn's appearance could have, consciously or subconsciously, influenced Simpson's design, but I have a few issues with the Raleigh-is-Flynn theory:

1. There wasn't exactly a dearth of images of Raleigh that could be used as artistic references. In fact, there were plenty of existing drawings/engravings/paintings of Raleigh that William Marks Simpson, the coin's designer, could have used as the basis for the Raleigh portrait he created. Here's just one, and it features Sir Walter in a very familiar hat with feather:


Image Credit: Ober, Frederick A. Sir Walter Raleigh. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1909. Public Domain.

2. I've read how the coin's portrait was based on Flynn as a result of his then-recent portrayal of Raleigh in a popular movie. I imagine the movie being referenced was The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Though it's true that Flynn had a leading role in the movie set in Elizabethan times, the role was not that of Sir Walter Raleigh; Flynn played the Earl of Essex - Vincent Price played the role of Sir Walter Raleigh in the film. There is also the issue of the movie being released in 1939, two years after the coin was struck! But I quibble!



3. I have searched many contemporary references that discuss the coin. None of them discuss how Flynn served as the model, or even the inspiration, for the Sir Walter portrait on the coin. It seems to me that publicizing a link to a currently-popular movie star would have helped sales a bit! (FYI: Q. David Bowers, the noted numismatic researcher and author, has also come up empty re: contemporary publicity referencing an Errol Flynn - Sir Walter Raleigh connection for the coin.)

Personally, I've always considered the Errol Flynn link to be apocryphal, and, thus, an oft-repeated numismatic myth! The available evidence points away from Flynn not toward him. I'll stick with the evidence!


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 Posted 04/19/2021  10:18 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add Winesteven to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Interesting, excellent, and creditable analysis!

Thanks again.

Steve
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 Posted 04/19/2021  10:23 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add Beefer518 to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Interesting write-up as always, Commems.

I dunno, looks like Vincent Price to me:

Edited by Beefer518
04/19/2021 10:24 pm
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 Posted 04/19/2021  10:46 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add Coinfrog to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Super read as always, thanks!
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 Posted 04/20/2021  05:16 am  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add nickelsearcher to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Can't argue with your analysis commems. Well said.
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 Posted 04/20/2021  07:44 am  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add commems to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply

Quote:
I dunno, looks like Vincent Price to me:

Of course, anything is possible Beefer518, but remember that Vincent Price was first seen portraying Sir Walter in a 1939 movie - 2+ years after the coin was designed and struck.


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 Posted 04/20/2021  7:35 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add fortcollins to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
@commems, I have a sincere question about Simpson's designs and this coin. He really seems to be an enigma.

I've always been puzzled when I compare his Roanoke and Norfolk designs with his beautiful Antietam half. What do you think of the Roanoke design? Were there any competing designs?

Thank you again for your labor of love with educating us about the commemorative series. I always learn a lot and it helps me appreciate the coins more.
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 Posted 04/21/2021  4:22 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add commems to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply

Quote:
I have a sincere question about Simpson's designs and this coin. He really seems to be an enigma.

I've always been puzzled when I compare his Roanoke and Norfolk designs with his beautiful Antietam half. What do you think of the Roanoke design? Were there any competing designs?

@fortcollins: Interesting question.

I'm going to guess that at least part of the reason why you say you are "puzzled" is in regards to the stylistic differences seen between the coins.

If this is it, I will say that a difference I have noted between the three Simpson designs is that the Antietam, to my eyes, has a photo-realistic appearance vs. the more stylized approach taken with the Norfolk and Roanoke coins. The designs on the Antietam, IMO, look much more like a pair of photographs with only minor artistic interpretation vs. the other two coins credited to Simpson.

Of course, a very real possible cause of this is the fact that Simpson had the benefit of actual Civil War era photographs of the Battle of Antietam battleground and the battle's major players on which to base his coin design vs. the pre-photographic days of Norfolk's founding and Sir Walter Raleigh's attempt at a colony at Roanoke - much more "artistic interpretation" was necessary for those coin designs. I also believe that Simpson's attendance and graduation from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) gave him a distinct appreciation for the coin's military theme and that he approached it with a sort of reverence as a result.

Just between you and me (), however, I think William's wife, Marjorie, gave non-credited assistance to him on the Roanoke design in addition to her credited assistance on the Norfolk. To my eyes, the Norfolk and Roanoke share a measure of artistic "feel" that makes me consider the possibility of a partnership effort. They did, after all, share a studio!

That said, I think the portrait of Raleigh on the Roanoke's obverse is in line with the portraits seen on the Antietam coin and thus is likely the work of William. The stylistic approach and execution of the reverse, however, have a different feel and seem to correspond more with the Norfolk coin; to me, this is where the involvement of Marjorie comes into play.

The possibility of collaboration on both coins seems possible given that the Norfolk and Roanoke had somewhat overlapping timelines, with the Roanoke half dollar and the Norfolk medal approved just two days apart, June 24, 1936 for the Roanoke and June 26, 1936 for the Norfolk.. (Note: Simpson began work on preparing a design for the medal long before the coin that replaced it was approved.) The original models for each commemorative piece were submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts in late-1936. I can definitely see how the simultaneous timelines could cause both Simpsons to get involved in completing the designs/models for each piece.

If my speculation is true, I believe it explains the difference in design aesthetics among the three coins.

To your specific question about my thoughts on the Roanoke design - I do like it. I think it's well-executed, though a bit crowded with all of the inscriptions it features - some legally required and some included for commemorative reasons. I think the Raleigh portrait side is the coin's stronger design side.

Were there other designs considered for the Roanoke? Simpson did prepare a preliminary set of plasters that were a bit different, though they still featured Raleigh on the obverse and Ellinor/Virginia on the reverse.

I would rank the Norfolk half dollar design number three among the Simpson-designed group. For me, it's hard to get beyond the text-heavy design - it doesn't leave much room for the coin's graphic elements to tell their story. (On a side note, I wonder how recognizable the unlabeled Royal Mace was to the average viewer in 1937 when the coin was issued? I'm referring to "Royal Mace" in general terms, not specifically the one given to Norfolk by Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie. I don't find that many folks today understand the purpose or significance of a mace.)

Let me know if that addresses your question. If not, I'll try again.


Collecting history one coin or medal at a time! (c) commems. All rights reserved.
Edited by commems
04/21/2021 4:35 pm
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 Posted 04/21/2021  7:08 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add fortcollins to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
@commems, Thank you very much! You hit the nail on the head about why I was puzzled. I hadn't thought about the VMI link and the existence of photographs of Antietam. That makes sense! The timelines and his wife's input also make sense.

You are a master teacher, my friend! Thank you!

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