Review / Devlin show promises more than it delivers

Art and Design/“Stuart Devlin: The Designer with the Midas Touch” at the Royal Australian Mint, until April 2017. Reviewed by Helen Musa.

Guide Polly shows Devlin tableware.

Guide Polly shows Devlin tableware.

THIS exhibition at the Royal Australian Mint promises somewhat more than it delivers.

Telling the story of one of Australia’s foremost artists, Stuart Devlin, designer of Australia’s circulating coins and also goldsmith and jeweller to the Queen, its advance publicity promises ‘richness’, ‘romance’ and ‘stunning pieces,’ but it in fact requires quite a bit of work on the behalf of viewers.

Open to the public from today, it was officially launched yesterday by the CEO of the Mint Ross MacDiarmid and industrial designer and academic Ian Wong.

Wong imagined ordinary Australians tossing coins or putting Devlin’s coin in public phones, conjuring up a cultural history for his Australian coinage while picturing celebrities like Cathy Freeman using his coins as he traced the evolution of his famous designs in the 1960s, which paralleled those of his competitor Gordon Andrews, designer of our decimal notes.

20 cent coin featuring the platypus

20-cent coin featuring the platypus

A fellow student at RMIT, Wong also outlined the sheer hard work involved in becoming such a celebrated designer and happily nominated his own favourite 20 cent coin featuring the platypus.

This exhibition certainly fulfils its promise to trace the evolution of Devlin’s prize-winning designs for the coins, showing early rejected designs and the beautiful watercolour images he produced of his work.

True to its promise there are several “stunning works,” not least his mace for La Trobe University, one of many ceremonial objects he has produced over his long career.

But the exhibition requires close consultation concentration and reading that will make demands, especially on younger visitors.

A notable exception is a special room, backed with images of his famous “Royal Ladies” series (Sarah Ferguson didn’t make the cut, but Princess Margaret, Princess Diana and the Queen Mother did).

Central to this room and the favourite of the guide from the Mint, is a dinner table laid with functional objects on loan from the Devlin family. These include goblets, cutlery, and a candelabrum exhibiting both the beautiful lines of Devlin’s work and his characteristically opulent decoration, which has led Wong to liken the exhibition, unconvincingly, to the NGA’s “Versailles” show.

But the table is just a small part of the exhibition, though visually the most ‘stunning’.

In a side room, a rolling video catalogues the many works produced in his long career, explaining how Devlin moved away from the Scandinavian-style designs he encountered as a student, opting for a more decorative form of gold and silversmithing.

On the screen visitors can see everything from the cocktail-shaker he made for Elizabeth Taylor to give Richard Burton, to the many Faberge-style eggs, some of which are open to reveal even more detailed objects, produced in brilliant detail.

1963 Frill-necked lizard design that beat the “Kangaroo and Joey” for the five cent coin

1963 Frill-necked lizard design that beat the “Kangaroo and Joey” for the five-cent coin

Undoubtedly, many of the objects on the screen will raise questions of taste among connoisseurs, for the style of work into which he moved after he left Australia in the 1960s is very different from the luminous simplicity of his coinage, which incidentally includes coins for over 30 countries worldwide and our early Order of Australia medals.

In the end, the outstanding part of this modest but informative exhibition is not the ‘stunning’ material on show but the story of a man and simple beauty of the coins we still use every day.

In the New Year, the Mint will be offering tours with a specialist guide at the cost of $10 per person for a 30 minute tour. In addition, a collectible commemorative coin will be released featuring Devlin’s original 1966 concept for the two cent piece, the “Kangaroo and Joey” coin. The public can register interest now at ramint.gov.au

 

 

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