History of The Colour Group (GB) Medals

Patrick Forsyth

The Newton Lecture was proposed by Robert Weale in 1962. It was to honour the memory of Newton, and be given by a speaker eminent in the field of Colour. The speaker was to be presented with a medal which shows a portrait of Newton on one side and the speakeŕs name on the other. Around the portrait bust are inscribed the words teaching those things which tend to the perfection of vision – a quotation from Newton’s Optiks. The British Museum supplied a medal struck privately by a Mr Croker in 1727, which was used as a basis for the design. Around the reverse side are the words The Colour Group (Great Britain). The medal has been awarded about every two years since 1963. The first recipient was W D Wright, and most of the succeeding lecturers have been eminent colour scientists.

In 1995 The Group elected an artist – Roy Osborne – as chairman. Before the end of his term of office the Colour Group Committee had agreed to invite an artist or art historian to give a prestige lecture in a year when the Newton Lecture was not given. Roy proposed that this be called the Turner Lecture, in memory of Britaińs greatest colorist. The J M W Turner Lecture was given by Peter Sedgely in 1998, and a second one by Albert Irvin RA in 2000. A third was by Martin Kemp in 2001. By this time it was clear that the J M W Turner lecture was here to stay, and the Committee felt that it, too, should be commemorated by presenting a medal to the lecturer.

I approached the medal makers who struck the Newton Medal for us, (and who, incidentally, also made the Chairman’s Badge of Office in 1994), and obtained from the National Portrait Gallery permission to use two of their portraits of Turner. An Art Historian member, Anne Blessley, suggested the use of a verse which Turner had adapted and placed beside Buttermere Lake, his first exhibited painting of a rainbow. (See John Gage’s book Colour and Culture pp114-115 for the full story)

Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion running from the red
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling blaze.
(Spring by James Thompson, 1728)

(The emboldened words are on the medal as explained below.)

The medal maker’s technique is to work from a sculptured plaque about 30cm diameter, and engrave the die using a pantograph. However, the cost of having a sculpture made from the NPG portraits, was, to say the least, off-putting, so I tried another tack. Turner’s Buttermere Lake hangs in the entrance to the Clore wing of the Tate (Britain) Gallery, and in a glass case in the same room can be seen Turner’s palette and an example of the Royal Academy’s Turner Medal. Nick Savage, the Royal Academy’s Librarian, was quite receptive to the idea of letting us use the RA’s medal as a basis for ours, so with Roy Osborne’s help, I made a written request to the RA’s Board. In due course they agreed. However, the original die had developed a crack, and, as the die was also part of their archive, they could not allow it to be used to strike more medals. The only version of the medal in their possession was in mint condition and gilded, a really beautiful object, which they could not release to the die maker. They proposed that we commission a replica, to be made by a craftsman selected and trusted by them, Leo Stevenson. Leo Stevenson does much work for museums, making replicas and is himself an artist. He later gave a talk to the Group.

Armed with two replicas, I was able to obtain a firm quote from our medal-maker. The quote was rather higher than the original guestimate, so before returning to the Committee for approval I obtained a second quote from a firm of medal makers in Friern Barnet. They proposed a different method of making the die, and their quote was substantially lower.

I visited The Mint, Friern Barnet, and saw examples of their work, and their workshops. Charles Neal & Son is a family business, and the present chairman is the ‘Son’ of the title, although the family business can trace its origins back 200 years to a die sinking business in Clerkenwell. His two sons Michael and Robert now run the business – one of them showed me round and gave the quotation, which the Committee accepted. I met the other in the workshop operating a numerically controlled milling machine, preparing another die. They made a silicone rubber mould from the replica, and then copper-plated it to produce a metal replica. This was then used to spark-erode a steel die. Each of these processes takes several days. After the bust had been engraved by this means the original R A wording round the medal had to be eliminated and replaced with the line of verse described above (emboldened text). The steel then had to be hardened. Because of the depth of the bas-relief of the original medal it was necessary to strike each medal twice, and since silver work-hardens, the medal had to be passed through an annealing oven in a reducing atmosphere between strikes.

Note from JD Moreland

I recall presenting the medal working group with a list of potentially appropriate quotes from Newton’s Optiks for the inscription, recommending Teaching those things which tend to the perfection of vision. WDW thought it was too narrow but I argued that “vision” could be thought of in the broadest sense.