Reginald George James Berry (known as James) was born on 20 June 1906 in London, England, the second child of James Willie Berry, a clerk, and his wife, Amy Blanche Clarissa Wakefield. After the death of his father in 1911, James was sent to board at Russell Hill School from 1913 until 1922. He won prizes for art and his talent was fostered by an aunt, Lilian Berry, who exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts. At 16 he became an insurance clerk, but finding the work uncongenial he emigrated to New Zealand on the Ionic arriving in February 1925. Subsequently he paid off his assisted passage as a farm cadet in Gisborne. A slight youth, five feet three inches tall, he worked exhausting 12-hour days, and played weekend cricket and tennis.
After two years in Gisborne Berry began working as a commercial artist with the Goldberg Advertising Agency in Wellington. He saved sufficient to buy a section, and to marry Miriel Frances Hewitt, a secretary, at St Jude's Anglican Church, Lyall Bay, on 3 February 1932. They were to have five daughters and one son. In 1932 Berry left the Goldberg Agency and took on freelance work, including the design of advertising layouts for the New Zealand Radio Record and New Zealand Dairy Exporter. From 1935 until 1942 he was staff artist at the Dominion, and during this time produced the popular historical booklet New Zealand in review (1940), which went to several editions. He was drafted to Mayer and Kean, engravers, on war work from 1942 until May 1944. Thereafter he was self-employed, designing book covers, illustrations, bookplates and, increasingly, stamps, coins and medals.
Berry's delicate designs were largely created for competitions. His first successful design for a health stamp in 1933 led to a regular commission for this series for 25 years. Further stamp designs were sought by New Zealand, Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, and once by Bermuda. Berry produced nine of the twelve designs for the 1940 centennial stamp issue, and the entire peace issue of 1946. He went on to design the notable series of lighthouse stamps for the Government Insurance Department issues, the first of which appeared in 1947. While they enjoyed popular approval, his designs were described as trite and mundane by some New Zealand critics. However, in 1948 he was described in the American journal Weekly Philatelic Gossip as 'the greatest postage stamp designer in the world'.
His first medal design, a commemorative piece for the New Zealand Aero Club, appeared in 1935. The previous year Berry had joined the New Zealand Numismatic Society, which recommended his design for the reverse of their Waitangi-Bledisloe Medal, and for the Waitangi Crown, both of which were issued in 1935. The crown was part of a new series that replaced British coinage in New Zealand.
In 1950 Berry was invited to Tonga to advise on the philatelic commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship with Great Britain, and Queen Salote's birthday. Stimulated by this trip he promptly decided to become a commercial traveller around New Zealand, so that he could pursue his interest in landscape painting, but a massive heart attack in 1962 curtailed these activities. Later, he optimistically embarked on ill-starred ventures such as bookselling, dealing in coins, and speculation in real estate.
In 1964 New Zealand decided to change to decimal currency; designs were invited, and Berry offered four sets, featuring New Zealand flora and fauna. There was overwhelming public support for Berry's designs in a nationwide newspaper poll, and one set was selected in 1966. It was subsequently approved by the Royal Mint and issued in 1967. Berry was sent to the Royal Mint to acquire further skills and this experience was of lasting benefit. Having gained in confidence, he competed for the British decimal designs but was unsuccessful. However, his prestige in New Zealand was such that the Dominion Sunday Times declared him to be '1966 Man of the Year', and in 1968 he was appointed an OBE.
In 1978 Berry was made an honorary member of the Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand. Membership of the New Zealand Ex Libris Society and of the Friends of the Turnbull Library catered for his interests in books, but his first allegiance lay with the Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Numismatic Society), of which he was variously secretary, vice president, president and fellow.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s James Cook's discoveries in the South Pacific were commemorated in stamps, coins, plaques and statues. Berry was called on to produce so many designs that he became an expert on the explorer. From 1971 there were frequent invitations to the Franklin Mint in Pennsylvania and in 1972 one to the Royal Australia Mint in Canberra. The Australian visit resulted in his largest commission: 60 silver-on-gold medallions for the Medallic History of Australia. The task took him over five years, but he found time in 1973 to deliver the Sutherland Lecture to the Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand in the form of a practical demonstration on 'The art production of coins and medals', and to arrange an exhibition of his work in the National Museum in 1975–76. Berry also received further commissions from Britain: for medallions of Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill, from the Cook Islands for additions to its decimal coinage, and from New Zealand for a series of commemorative dollars. He was granted the rare honour of incorporating his version of the Queen's head on four of these dollar coins.
In his last years Berry travelled frequently. He mounted a retrospective exhibition in New Zealand House, London, in 1977; subsequently his landscape painting took him to Ireland, which because of tax concessions to artists was a more attractive domicile than New Zealand. In 1978 he prepared an exhibition of his own landscapes in Dublin, and in 1979 designed his last medal, for the papal visit. He then paid final visits to relatives and friends in England before returning to Auckland. There, on 6 November 1979, he boarded the plane for Wellington, and immediately suffered a fatal heart attack. Three days later a crowded funeral was held in Wellington's Anglican cathedral. He was survived by his wife and children. During his lifetime, Berry completed more than 1,000 designs for stamps, coins and medals. His talents received one final accolade: the gold medal of the Accademia Italiana dell'Arte e del Lavoro in 1980.