Matthew Boulton’s Naval Medals. Sim Comfort. 2019

Matthew Boulton’s Naval Medals. Sim Comfort. 2019

Comfort, Sim.  
Matthew Boulton’s Naval Medals.  
Sim Comfort Associates.  
ISBN 978-905887-11-1.  
405 pages.

This book is a sumptuous publication with over 400 pages of quality paper, profusely illustrated in colour.  It is no wonder that this book, published in a limited edition of 500 copies, retails at £125.


The contents are divided into two sections: the accounts of the seven medals produced by Matthew Boulton, and a catalogue of those naval medals and information about the officers and men with whom they are associated.


If you are interested in naval medals then you will appreciate this book.  Those readers whose interests are confined to Captain Cook will find the story of the Resolution and Adventure medal of interest, but this section comprises less than 1/10th of the entire book.  This review concentrates on the book’s account of this medal.


The author begins with extensive biographical details of Boulton and the family’s Soho Works, which, despite their name, were based in Birmingham and not in London!  The author demonstrates Boulton’s aim of creating and developing the company, establishing the Soho Mint in 1789.


The Resolution and Adventure medal was Boulton’s first attempt at making a medal.  Production was fraught with unexpected problems, and Boulton learned a great deal from his initial venture into minting medals.


A substantial part of this section is taken up with describing the importance of the Transit of Venus, and Cook’s first voyage of discovery, 1768-1771.


The author notes that whilst Cook was visiting Huahine, he presented the chief with “some Medals or Counters of the English coine struck 1761”, recording in his journal that this act was “as lasting a Testimony of our having first discover’d this Island as any we could leave behind”.  It may well have been this incident that prompted Joseph Banks to commission an appropriate medal to distribute on his next voyage to the Pacific planned to begin in 1772, in the ships Resolution and Adventure


This section is full of interesting details about the production of the medal.  The designer and die-cutter of the medal is identified as John Westwood (1744-1792), a Birmingham craftsman.  The author considers the types of machinery available to Boulton, and the rate of production of medals from such machinery.  It naturally leads to a financial consideration of the economics of medal production.  So great was the potential profit arising from the production of medals that, in 1789, Boulton established his Soho Mint for the production of medals.


The author has clearly undertaken extensive research into the production of the Resolution and Adventure medal, as he quotes extracts from Boulton’s Pocket Book of 1772, as well as Boulton’s correspondence with Banks.  Boulton’s invoices to Banks confirm that a small number of medals had been struck in gold and silver, in addition to the 2,000 medals in platina, a brass alloy of copper and zinc.


After describing the production of the medal, the book presents a series of large images showing both sides of the medal, with examples struck in gold, silver and platina.  The author has selected the best example of each of the medals that were produced.  The accompanying text describes the important features of each medal, and points out the two different dies which were used in their manufacture.  The two dies are easily distinguished from each other by examining the position of the anchor on the bow of the ship on the left.  In Type I, the anchor is hanging vertically from the bow, whereas in Type II, the anchor lies horizontally along the hull.


The Type I die was used for the initial run of platina medals.  Early in the production run, the die for the reverse (i.e. bearing the image of the two ships) developed a small crack in the left-hand side of the exergue.  Unfortunately the line of this crack was transferred to all the medals that were struck from it.


Boulton knew that King George III was to receive a gold medal, so he commissioned Westwood to produce a second die for the reverse (Type II), and it was this new die that was used to strike the gold and silver specimens.


Some of illustrations show the medals in pristine condition, as they were acquired by the British Museum shortly after being minted.  Other illustrations show medals in various conditions, accompanied by descriptions that provide some details of their recent provenance, including at what auctions they appeared, and also the prices they realised. 


In summarising his research, the author imagines the sequence of challenges that Boulton encountered in his first production of a medal, and considers how he surmounted them.  Boulton “cut his teeth” on the production of the Resolution and Adventure medal, and learned lessons that he exploited when minting future medals.  Here the author introduces the reader to such minor details as the orientation of the head and reverse sides in relation to each other.  Should they have a common top point, or should one side be 180 degrees opposite?


How frustrating it must have been for Boulton in trying to have all of the medals completed for Banks’s deadline in March 1772, only to learn two months later that Banks was no longer going on the voyage!  Fortunately Banks did not lose any money on producing the medals as Boulton was eventually paid by the Admiralty for striking 2,000 medals.


One aspect of this medal that has been debated by collectors is the meaning of the letters B:F, which can be found on the shoulder of the King’s head.  It has been suggested that the letters stand for Boulton Fecit, i.e. “Boulton made it”.  However, Comfort is of a differing opinion.  He believes that the initials stand for Boulton and Fothergill, as Matthew Boulton had entered into a partnership with John Fothergill in 1762.  He supports his interpretation of the initials by referring to Boulton’s correspondence with Banks, which was conducted in the style of Boulton & Fothergill.


Comfort also shares an interesting postscript with his readers by referring to an intriguing note from Westwood, the die-cutter, dated 27 June, 1772.  In it Westwood refers to dies for “the medals of Mr Banks and Dr Solander”.  It appears that Banks was so intent on commissioning a medal, that he entered into negotiations with Boulton to produce a medal to commemorate his voyage to Iceland.  Apart from this note by Westwood, there is no evidence that this medal was ever produced.


The author completes his history of the Resolution and Adventure medal with a brief description of Cook’s Second Voyage.  He quotes several extracts from Cook’s journal when the presentation of medals to the different peoples was recorded.  Those medals remaining at the end of the voyage were taken on Cook’s Third Voyage, and distributed.


The author acknowledges the monograph on the Resolution and Adventure medal written by L. Richard Smith.  This 1985 publication was the first in-depth study of this medal, and was written by a well-known collector of Cook related medals.  His booklet contains much information complementary to that contained in this Matthew Boulton book.


The rest of this book is devoted to those medals made by Boulton to celebrate Britain’s naval victories.

The St Eustatia Medal

The Glorious First of June

The Davison Nile Medal

King Ferdinand IV Medal

Earl St Vincent Medal

The Trafalgar Medal


I enjoyed reading this book as the author’s writing conveys his enthusiasm for his subject.  Unfortunately, there are so many typos and minor errors that I can only conclude that this book was not proofed before publication!  Factual errors are few and far between, and are surprising when they do arise, e.g. Endeavour left Plymouth in 1768 not 1769, and the island of Motuara lies within Queen Charlotte Sound and not in the Cook Strait.


Cliff Thornton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 10, volume 42, number 3 (2019).

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