According to Philip Atwood, Legros is responsible for the resurgence of the medal in England:
Alphonse Legros was universally recognized as the principal instigator of the late-nineteenth-century revival of the medal in Britain…His first medals belong to 1881. As a painter who turned to medal-work in his mid-forties, Legros’ artistic career follows closely that of Antonio Pisanello, the Italian Renaissance artist credited with making the earliest medals. His medals, too, owe much to the example of Pisanello, whose work he saw displayed in the British Museum only a few hundred yards from the Slade School. Large, cast in bronze, and issued in small editions, they could not have been more different from the struck medals turned out in their thousands by the manufacturers of Birmingham and London…Just as Legros’ larger sculptural works, which he also began to make in the 1880s, were influenced by the example of his French contemporaries, so his medals reveal an awareness not only of the Italian Renaissance medal but also of the medallic tradition of his native land. [Atwood, 1992, 4-5]
Legros and Italian Renaissance Medalists
Legros had the opportunity to study medals by Pisanello both in the British Museum and the Cabinet des Médailles, a department of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. Prior to starting to make his own cast medals in 1881, Legros would also have seen additional examples of Italian Renaissance medals other than by Pisanello because the British Museum put a selection of its Renaissance medals on permanent display in about 1879. The Victoria and Albert Museum also had a collection of Renaissance medals.
The Italian Renaissance medallists, like their Victorian counterparts, were frequently painters in addition to medallists and certainly Legros considered medal making to be part of a painter’s craft. Legros had an antipathy to the neo-classical tradition of medal making then current in Britain and the revival of the cast art medal in England was due almost entirely to Legros’s leadership. In 1882 he instituted a medallists’ class at the Slade with the intention of making it permanent if the experiment proved successful. He was a founder member of the Society of Medallists in 1885. In that year a number of artists including Legros ,E. J. Poynter, W. B. Richmond, W. F. Yeames, Frederic Leighton, Edgar Boehm, W. H. Thornycroft, and others joined with die-engravers, art historians, and numismatists to form this society. Their first exhibition was held in conjunction with the International Invention Exhibition at South Kensington in London in 1885. The Society continued to have displays and award prizes throughout the 1880s. In 1898 the Society of Medallists was reformed with Legros as its president.
Left: John Stuart Mill. Middle: Alfred Tennyson. Right: Charles Darwin. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Legros’s softly modelled portrait medallions of the great Victorians are particularly notable and reveal his obvious debt to Pisanello. Legros generally focused in his medals on depicting the relationship between the appearance and the character of his sitters. Notable Victorians that Legros made bronze medals of in the years 1881-82 included Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson, John Stuart Mill, and W. E. Gladstone. Attwood has noted:
Legros’ desire to make a clean break with the British tradition is highlighted by his refusal to entrust their casting to an English foundry. Instead he sent his models, both for his medals and the larger sculptures, to be cast in Paris. In a letter of 30 October 1881 to his friend Rodin, announcing the imminent arrival of three of his earliest medals, the artist was at pains to point out that a smooth circumference and polished surface should be avoided: ‘You will be kind enough to advise the person who does the work not to do any retouching, neither with glass-paper or anything else, nor to regularize the edges’ [Atwood, 1992, 5]
The Critical Reception of Legros’s Medals
F. G. Stephens in The Athenaeum praised Legros’s foray into this new field:
Mr. Legros has become a medallist, having executed five medallions in low relief, and in a manner resembling that of the late Cinquecento. Here and there certain parts are highly finished, such as the lips and nostrils, the other features being treated in an extremely broad manner. These medallions comprise portraits of Carlyle, the Laureate, two artists’ models, and a little girl. The last pleases us most. 
Not everyone was favourably impressed by Legros’s efforts, however. Edmund Gosse gave a scathing report on Legros’ medals in The Saturday Review in 1882:
Those who have been influenced by what had been reported beforehand of the medals of Professor Legros will, we fear, be considerably disappointed when they examine those which he exhibits at the Royal Academy and at the Grosvenor Gallery. They can be divided into two classes – those medals in which, with an artless exactitude, he imitates the very faults and accidents in worn Renaissance medals, and those in which he attempts to employ modern heads in a modern manner. The latter are absolute failures; the former are exceedingly clever as imitations pure and simple, but they have no other value. Where Professor Legros cannot base his mode of work on the practice of an old master he shows himself, as in the grotesque medallion of Darwin, helpless before the technical difficulties of a very curious and delicate art. It is perhaps not very easy in England, where very little has been done in this class, to confront Professor Legros’s medals with really excellent work; but in Paris, where so much is done of an experimental kind, it is easy enough. His medals will not bear comparison for a moment with such work…We are sorry to think that so good an artist could persuade himself to exhibit such crudities, or to listen to the flatteries of those who, if he were to model a hot-cross bun, would discover in it sculpturesque line and noble plastic qualities. In five years’ time Professor Legros will be the first to laugh at these absurd pretensions. It is perfectly intelligible that an active and original painter should feel a desire to express himself now and then in a new medium, and measure himself with craftsmen of a different training. The exercise is highly salutary, and he returns refreshed to his own particular labours; what is not salutary is the flattery of injudicious friends, who are pledged to admire all that he does, and who have the same patter for his failures as for his masterpieces. 
A great many of Legros medals are illustrated in Bénédite‘s article on Legros in The Studio in 1903 (16-17). Both the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum collections own a large number of medals by Legros.
Attwood, Philip. “The medals of Alphonse Legros.” The Medal 5 (1984): 7-23.
Attwood, Philip: Artistic Circles. The Medal in Britain 1880-1918, London: British Museum Press, 1992.
Bénédite, Léonce. “Alphonse Legros, Painter and Sculptor.” The Studio XXIX (June 1903), 3-22.
Gosse, Edmund. “Sculpture in 1882,” The Saturday Review LIII (June 10, 1882): 731-32.
Stephens, Frederic George. “Fine Art Gossip.” The Athenaeum No. 2829 (January 14, 1882): 65.
Last modified 16 November 2022