Medallic and numismatic art is one that combines artistry and technical skill. Not only was Allen trained in the technicalities of this art as a teenager in the jewelry factories of Attleboro, but he was also trained in the artistry of the work by Bela Lyon Pratt, one of the two foremost numismatists of the day. The other was Pratt’s teacher Augustus St. Gaudens, our most famous American sculptor. On his own, Allen had an extraordinary ability to create depth and detail in extremely low relief. This medal is an example.
Two designs are created to complement each other on opposite sides of the medal or coin. First the artist creates sketches of his opposing designs on paper or directly on clay incorporating a design and lettering. The space available is very small, so the design must be reduced to the simplest and clearest elements. The medal is made first in an oversized original and reduced to the final size by the medal maker. The advantage of working oversize is that the important details that make the image realistic can be refined. The first copy is modeled by adding tiny pellets of clay then shaping and carving with sculptor’s tools to achieve the desired result. The central image is usually done first then the lettering added around it. Once the sculptor determines that the work is perfect he casts it in plaster by first coating the clay with a release agent, sealing the edge with a “fence,” mixing the plaster carefully to prevent air bubbles then coating the relief, slowly and carefully building up the thickness. When it is dry, it may be baked to harden it. So now the “positive” clay becomes the “negative” plaster. Here is the artist’s opportunity to make refinements to the design. The process is then repeated, the negative plaster coated with the release agent and covered with another layer of plaster which, when lifted off, becomes a “positive” again. This is the copy that is sent to the medal maker for reduction and production. A steel die is “cut” of the reduction and used to “strike” the final copies in metal for distribution. The artisans who cut the dies are called “sculptors in steel.” Computers do that job now so, sadly, the art has been lost.
On the obverse (the front) of this Boston Symphony Orchestra medallion is a young man kneeling on a curved horizon facing right with his right knee resting on the horizon. His left knee is bent in front supporting his left arm with the fingers of this hand holding a lyre on the far vertical arm at the crossbar. His right arm is raised, the hand playing the five strings of the instrument.
His hips are slightly elevated, sitting on his heel, the toes bent under him in a sandaled foot. A cloth drapes his legs, leaving the muscular torso bare down past his waist. His hair is done with a decorative treatment of tight curls held together with a band below the crown, tied at the base of the skull. The head bends slightly forward, but the torso stays erect. The face is handsome and the anatomy throughout accurate and detailed. Block letters around the border under the rim read “Boston Symphony Orchestra 1881-1931.”
On the reverse are two laurel sprays with symmetrical pairs of opposing leaves each with seventeen leaves. Between the stem of the sprays is a short lyre on a standing base in the small space at the bottom (in exergue). Between the curved branches in the middle of the medallion are block letters reading “FIFTIETH ANNVERSARY MEDAL.” The name of the foundry is stamped on the flat edge “MEDALLIC ART CO. N.Y.”
The gift to the Museum of Fine Arts was from Henry P. Richmond, Allen’s architect friend, Pete.