Downies was deeply saddened to hear of the recent passing of Stuart Devlin.
A master goldsmith and silversmith, Stuart was the man behind some of the most iconic Australian coins in history. Hold a ubiquitous ‘Mob of 'Roos’ $1 coin in your hand, and you hold a piece of Australia’s national identity. Along with the five kangaroos, whose tails hold a tale of their own - but more on that later.
The lucky country has lost a national treasure, but the luck hasn’t run out just yet.
We can take solace in Stuart’s prolificacy. Inside every pocket, purse or wallet in Australia is a piece of his legacy, still resplendent in cupro-nickel or aluminium-bronze.
The early days
Stuart was born in Geelong in 1931, one of four children. Money may have been his destiny, but in the throes of the Great Depression, there was never enough. Relying entirely on a prodigious talent and solid work ethic, Stuart left school with a scholarship to study metalwork, before embarking on a Diploma of Art in gold and silversmithing, teaching his craft in order to support himself.
Subsequent scholarships and fellowships saw him go from strength to strength. London was calling, and its Royal College of Art became his new stomping-ground. This was swiftly followed with a post at Columbia University in the US. But it was back in Australia – teaching in 1964 – that he would make the decision that ultimately steered the course of the rest of his life.
The dawn of Decimal Currency
Ever since former Prime Minister Robert Menzies had pledged to investigate moving away from pounds, shillings and pence in 1958, the clock had begun to tick for the awkward predecimal system.
And in 1964, a competition was held to design Australia’s new decimal coins. Stuart entered. Despite some highly-decorated, much more experienced opponents, he won. His whimsical designs of Australian animals – a feathertail glider, a frilled-neck lizard, an echidna, a lyrebird, a platypus – captured the hearts of the panel.
It is testament to the quality of these designs that many still prevail, half a century later. And even after decades of wear. His designs don’t need to be in Unc or above to be enjoyed. A Platypus 20c in lesser grade is still a thing of beauty.
Stuart was skilled – of course – but tenacity and problem-solving were also tools of his trade.
In an interview in 2016, he shed some light on some of the challenges he had faced in his design work. “Right from the beginning there’s always the pressure to go to the kangaroo,” he explained to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Ray Edgar. “But I could not deal with that tail in the designs I wanted. So I covered myself by doing it in the coat of arms.” Of course, glance at the (offending) 50c coin design today, and you would never know.
A new denomination was introduced in 1984, and once again, Stuart delivered. If tails had been problematic in past designs, he had vanquished those fears. The 1984 ‘Mob of 'Roos’ is one of his most instantly recognisable designs. And each one of the five 'roos has a tail.
(Not just) a national treasure
If the world hadn’t noticed him before, it did now. Stuart went on to design coins for a staggering 36 other countries. He moved back to London, creating a number of prestigious commission pieces: ceremonial maces, altar crosses, trophies. He continued to work tirelessly for many years, and sketch up until 2014 when he suffered a stroke.
In Stuart’s recent passing at age 86, the world has lost a rare talent. But the world of Numismatics will always remember him fondly – and perhaps never see a kangaroo’s tail the same way again.
Downies is proud to have worked directly with Stuart. He joined us in our shops and met many customers during the run-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I remember the long queues of collectors patiently lining up to meet him, and having their Olympic coin certificates signed.
He will be sorely missed.
Above: (L), Stuart Devlin meets some Downies customers; (R), Collectors queue outside Downies' Melbourne Block Arcade Store to meet the Numismatic legend ahead of the Sydney Olympic Games.