The King of Beasts (And Notes)

Posted on 3/15/2016

The universality of the lion’s apex status among the animal kingdom, as well as its representation of human bravery and nobility, enlivens banknotes in complementary ways.

“We begin first of all by speaking of the lion, the king of all the beasts.”

So begins the multi-authored Physiologus, written some time between the second and fourth centuries as a collection of informative and allegorical animal lore. The text’s translation into dozens of languages throughout the following centuries encouraged the lion’s apex status not only among the animal kingdom, but as a figure universally representing human qualities of bravery, strength, and nobility. Consequently, the lion is perhaps the most portrayed animal on paper money from across the globe.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Pick# 198, back
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The most famous of these immortalized cats are Stephen and Stitt, whose initial forms were in cast bronze rather than paper. Their sculptures continue to guard the various international offices of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) today, after their debut in front of the Shanghai office in 1923. Alexander Stephen, chief manager in Shanghai at the time, commissioned the sculptures from London after seeing an impressive stone lion statue outside the Venetian Arsenal while on a trip to northern Italy. Gordon Stitt, who would take over for Stephen until 1926, is the namesake for the watchful lion on the right. Stitt accompanies Stephen, who is at the left and roaring (ironically, due to Alexander Stephen’s well-known even temperament) on the reverse of Hong Kong Pick 198.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Pick# 190 (left), Pick# 189 (right), back
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Stephen and Stitt’s instant popularity led to later Chief Manager Sir Vandeleur Grayburn’s commission of two replicas for HSBC’s Hong Kong headquarters that were finished in 1935. These newer Stephen and Stitt sculptures were hit by shrapnel in December 1941 during the Battle of Hong Kong: a Japanese surprise attack within a day of the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. The lions survived Hong Kong’s surrender after three weeks of fighting and the proceeding Japanese occupation that lasted until 1945, and still bear their battle wounds. After such an eventful history they are favorite handholds of passersby, who rub the lions’ paws, teeth, and noses for good luck. Stephen and Stitt’s maws can be seen close up and mirrored on the reverses of Hong Kong Pick 190 and Pick 189, respectively. Pick 190 is the only HSBC note to exclusively feature Stephen; all other HSBC notes issued after 1973 show either a solitary Stitt or both lions together.

China, Pick# 891, back
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An eventful history does not account for all of Stephen and Stitt’s longstanding fame, however. Although surviving species of lion are native only to Africa and Western India, the lion’s eminence in Chinese culture still reveals itself in the plentiful guardian statues lining bridges and buildings distinguished by traditional architecture. Because the majority of the lions that made their way to China centuries ago were gifts to the Emperor, the lack of historical familiarity with the animal means these stone lions are not as anatomically correct as Stephen and Stitt, forged internationally. They instead reflect a more symbolic, artistic take on the animal. Lions often come in pairs—a male playing with a ball and a female with a cub—representing unity of the Empire and thriving youth, respectively. The lion also plays a role as a sentry in many traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, in which he chases away a monster to protect the children of a village. A male stone lion is seen at the left of the commemorative China Pick 891’s back.

Tanzania Pick# 37, front
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The “guardian” status of the lion transcends geographical boundaries from China to Hong Kong,China to Italy, the birthplace of Alexander Stephen’s idea for the sculptures. But factoring in the nobility of the lion extends its allegorical range even farther: north to the United Kingdom and south toward its native Africa. Tanzania Pick 37, for example, casts a rather heroic scene of its lion specimen: a low-angled perspective with a wind-ruffled gaze toward something unseen.

Singapore, Board of Comm. of Currency, Pick# 18a, ND (1987) 1 Dollar,
PMG Graded 67 Superb Gem Unc EPQ, front
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Furthermore, this dramatic tone bears resemblance to a traditional British heraldry attitude called lion statant, in which the lion’s head is facing slightly away from the foreground while it is standing on all four paws—a common stance emblazoned on many noble British crests. Stephen and Stitt, meanwhile, resemble a lion couchant attitude: lying down with the head up. Considering familial crests in England began with William the Conqueror’s reign in 1066, these specific, lion-oriented heraldic attitudes have stood the test of time. Indeed, according to heraldry expert Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, “no figure plays such an important or such an extensive part in armory as the lion” (armory referring specifically to emblem emblazonment, while heraldry encompasses familial and pedigree-related culture as well as armory). One of numerous examples of armory on banknotes is seen in the top left corner of Singapore Pick 18, which showcases the Coat of Arms of Singapore with a lion at the left. This lion exhibits a rarer armory attitude: a similarity to the lion salient, in which the lion’s body is springing on its two hind legs, in addition to a guardant direction, characterized by a look toward the spectator. Although some of these examples are not strictly armory-related, clearly artists continue to bestow strong poses when rendering the lion, which can also be seen on crests created centuries ago.

Central Bank of Kenya, Pick# 13, 20/- Shilling, back
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Reflective of both the approachable Stephen and Stitt and the heroic, yet naturalistic Tanzania Pick 17, the reverse of the 20/- Shilling Kenya Pick 13 showcases the social aspect of lions—a quality not shared in many other big cats. The way the pride (pictured above) sits and plays emits an endearing, familiar quality that the Central Bank of Kenya, its nation a famous home for lions, effortlessly creates. The two reclining lions also join Stephen and Stitt in another zoological accuracy, being that lions can rest up to 22 hours per day.

Bulgaria, Pick# 106, front
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Beyond its appearances on notes, the lion’s cultural influence is also evidenced in numismatic etymology. The leu, official currency of Romania (until the country switches to the Euro in light of its European Union membership) and Moldova, translates from Romanian into English as “lion.” The Bulgarian lev, represented one thousandfold on Bulgaria Pick 106, takes its name from an old Bulgarian word for “lion” used in the 1800s. The lion emerged as a national symbol of liberation for Bulgarians living under the Ottoman Empire until 1878, when Russia and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of San Stefano, the first step toward Bulgarian autonomy. A lion flanks a flag-bearer on Pick 106 over the shoulder of Vasil Levski (born Vasil Ivanov Kunchev), a Bulgarian revolutionary hero nicknamed “Levski” (“lionlike”) by his countrymen due to his courage.

The universality of the lion’s apex status among the animal kingdom, as well as its representation of human bravery and nobility, enlivens banknotes in complementary ways. It shows in Stephen’s tenacity and Stitt’s patience. In nature and in heraldry. In endearment and heroism. In names both ironic and symbolic.

And all contribute to the collective, concurrent beauty and reckoning of paper money.

PMG is an independent member of the Certified Collectibles Group (CCG).

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