If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Back in the 1890s Louis Oscar Roty was beginning to make a name for himself as a sculptor.

About 1894 he was commissioned by a French agricultural society to sculpt the maquette for a medal, intended to be awarded to farmers who made a significant contribution to some aspect of agriculture. Roty laboured on the project and eventually came up with the full length figure of a woman, epitomising France by wearing the Phrygian cap of Liberty associated with the Revolution. In her left arm she cradled a bag of corn seed and this she scattered as she advanced across a newly ploughed field with the sun rising on the horizon to symbolise hope for the future.

Sadly, the committee of the agricultural society did not like the design and therefore rejected it. The maquette lay in a drawer for a couple of years, but then came the big breakthrough when Roty was commissioned by the French Mint to produce a design for the obverse of the new coinage. This time La Semeuse (The Sower) won acceptance and in 1897 appeared on the silver 50 centime piece, followed by the 1 and 2 franc coins a year later.

So successful was this image that the Post Office decided to scrap the Mouchon design and asked Roty to adapt his coin design for a new definitive series. Roty had great difficulty converting the image from a three-dimensional medium to the flat surface of a postage stamp. Remarkably, Eugene Mouchon, whose own design was usurped, was called in to engrave the master die for his rival’s creation.

The first of the Sower stamps appeared in April 1903. With various modifications, Roty’s elegant Art Nouveau figure continued to grace the stamps till the 1930s. The coins themselves had a much shorter life, disappearing in 1920. The advent of the ‘heavy franc’ in 1960 saw Roty’s Sower back on the coins once more and this time they lasted till the Millennium. Today, the Sower can be found on some of the French Euro coins.

Philatelically she had mixed fortunes. Given a make-over, she appeared on two bicoloured definitives in 1960. Now, however, France has celebrated the centenary of the first Sower stamp by issuing a booklet of ten stamps, in which five of the original Roty stamps are placed alternately with her contemporary re-incarnation, the Marianne of 14 July. The original inscription REPUBLIQUE FRANCAISE has been replaced by RF and the value 0.50€. Roty’s name appears in the bottom left-hand corner, balanced by that of Claude Jumelet who re-engraved the die.

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