THE NATIONAL EISTEDDFOD MEDAL 1898 BY SIR WILLIAM GOSCOMBE JOHN
Sir William Goscombe John (1860-1952) was born as William John in Cardiff (he added the Goscombe later, after a village in Gloucestershire near his mother’s birthplace). He became pre-eminent in what was dubbed the ‘New Sculpture’ movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is especially associated with Wales where many of his works are, but many can also be found in England and overseas. To numismatists he is best known for his investiture medal of 1911, the official issue from the Royal Mint, struck in silver plus a small edition in gold. The New Sculpture movement was drawn to depicting figures from folklore and mythology, so who better than William Goscombe John to design a medal for the National Eisteddfod Association depicting the semi-legendary bard Taliesin and a Welsh dragon? Taliesin himself was a historical bardic figure from the sixth century, but due to the nature of record-keeping in (and the survival rate of historical records from) the ‘Dark Ages’ in Britain, what little we know of him comes from semi-legendary sources. Forrer quotes the following with regard to Goscombe John’s work: “delicacy is the quality of Mr John’s sculpture which strikes the spectator”1 and in my opinion the same could be said for his medallic works, including the present medal. The medal is dated 1898 and although the precise reason for its commission is unclear, he had been commissioned to design a druidic horn (the ‘Hirlas Horn’) by Lord Tredegar in 1896 (completed in 1899) for use at subsequent eisteddfodau and as a result may have received this further instruction for a medal. Forrer and Pearson2 both note that the silver version was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1899, the year in which he was elected as an Associate of the Academy. By virtue of the medal being listed in the Pinches catalogue it appears that it was struck by that firm. The author states that it was “awarded annually as a prize for music and literature competitions” 3 (i.e. at the eisteddfod), but given the relative scarcity of this large size medal in either bronze or silver, one must wonder how often it was in fact awarded and over what timescale. Additionally I have seen the following: “The medal [-] has been awarded to prize winners since 1896 (not 1898 as stated in Brown and Eimer)”4. Since the medal is dated 1898 this statement cannot be correct. Smaller bronze versions have been used since as eisteddfod prizes (Figures 3 and 4). As was usual with medals of the era, the first stage was for the artist to produce a largescale model in plaster. Figure 1 is a framed and gilded plaster model of the obverse and you do not necessarily need to be a medal enthusiast to appreciate its artistic beauty.
The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the varieties of this medal, some of which I believe have not been published previously. All may be considered rare to varying degrees. In my view Goscombe John was an outstanding medallist and sculptor, whose pride in the culture, history and language of his native Wales shines through, not only in this medal but in his works relating to Wales more generally.
1Forrer, Leonard, Biographical Dictionary of Medallists vol.III, p.79.(8 vols., London 1904-1930, reprinted 1987). It’s unclear in the text to whom the quotation is attributed.
2Pearson, Fiona, Goscombe John at the National Museum of Wales (Cardiff 1979)
3 Pinches, John Harvey, Medals by John Pinches, A Catalogue of Works struck by the Company from 1840 to 1969 (London 1987)
4 Baldwins Auctions Ltd, Auction 81, Lot 3271 footnote (10th May 2013)
5 The motto ‘Y Gwir yn erbyn y byd’ was considered to be traditional but in fact was an invention of the Celtic enthusiast ‘Iolo Morganwg’ (Edward Williams 1747-1826). Likewise the Sign of the Gorsedd was another of his inventions. Depicted as three rays of light, it is said to be a mystic sign whose significance is known only to the druids of the Gorsedd. The sign is known as ‘awen’ (muse) and represents the sun. In 1899 Goscombe John himself was admitted into the Gorsedd of Bards, following the completion and presentation of the Hirlas Horn he had made for the eisteddfod.
Basic reference works
BHM/Brown: Brown, Laurence, British Historical Medals Vol.3 (London 1987)
Eimer, Christopher, British Commemorative Medals & their Values (2nd ed., London 2010)
Miles, Dillwyn, The Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales (Swansea 1978)
Miles, Dillwyn, The Secret of the Bards of the Isle of Britain (Llandybie 1992)
This article is an edited version of one that first appeared in The Historical Medal Journal No.3 (July 2021)
Copyright Charles Riley 2021