The Art of Money

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As of 13th September 2016, the Bank of England issued its first ever polymer note. The £5 note is the first to be printed on this thin, flexible material, and, although smaller in size, is considerably more durable than its paper predecessor. They are also a lot harder to counterfeit.

Until the new note was released, I had not thought about the actual appearance of our money. Apart from displaying the Queen’s head and being different colours depending on quantity, the rest of the design felt insignificant. However, there is a lot of thought put into the composition of our banknotes.

The Bank of England Museum in London currently exhibits a Banknote Gallery, containing all the note styles and designs from 1694, when paper money came into existence, right up until the latest polymer version. Following the timeline of notes throughout history reveals the development of the visual appearance and the increasing intricacy of their design.

The museum provides information about the new fiver, how it was made, and explains the reasons for the choice of design. Including the current £10, £20 and the £50 note in their display, they also interpret the varying features many people may not have noticed. Our money is a lot more interesting to look at than we think.

The New £5

As most people in the UK will know, the paper £5 note featured the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on one side, and Elizabeth Fry, an English pioneering Quaker from the Victorian-era, on the reverse. Although the Queen’s image remains the same, the historical character has been changed. The polymer note presents the face of one of the most famous Prime Ministers of the past; Winston Churchill.

Incorporating the 1941 photograph of Sir Winston Churchill taken by Yousuf Karsh, the bank has decided to celebrate the life of the British statesman who had a significant role in the UK’s modern history. Churchill was Prime Minister during two significantly life-altering events. The first occasion (1940-1945), were also the years of the Second World War, meaning Churchill had a lot of important decisions to make, and a country relying on him to protect them from the hostile Nazis. His second term ran from 1951 until 1955 and contained a much happier event – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Knowing the historical significance of Sir Winston Churchill makes the rest of the design more meaningful. Below Churchill’s portrait is a phrase that he is famous for saying during his first term as Prime Minister: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” This came from his first speech in the House of Commons after taking up his new position. Of his three famous speeches, this line is one that is remembered most.

To Churchill’s right-hand side on the polymer note, is an illustration of the Houses of Parliament. The relevance is obvious since, due to his role, Churchill spent a lot of time here. But behind the building is a symbol that some may not recognise. As well as a statesman, Churchill was an artist and writer as well, and in 1953 he won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. This mysterious symbol on the back of the £5 note is, in fact, a sketch of the Nobel medal.

The final design connection to Churchill, and displayed on a circular, green foil patch – another method of limiting fake copies – is the word “BLENHEIM”. Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire was the family home and place of birth of Winston Churchill. The name today is still largely associated with the former Prime Minister.

On the other side, the side considered the front of the note, is the same portrait of the Queen that featured on the paper version. But what really differentiates the new from the old, other than the material, is the see-through window on the left-hand side of the note. This hallmark will make it a lot harder to counterfeit, especially as the window contains a finely detailed metallic image of the Elizabeth Tower. When viewed from the front, the tower appears to be gold, however, on the reverse, it shines silver.

£10, £20, and £50

The Bank of England proposes to reproduce the £10 and £20 note in the same polymer material but has yet to decide whether to manufacture the more recent £50 in this manner. This summer (2017) is the intended season to begin issuing the polymer £10, however, the polymer £20 will not come into circulation until 2020.

These new notes give the nation the opportunity to honour other historical figures. Jane Austen is set to appear on the £10 note and J.M.W. Turner will take pride of place on the £20. In the meantime, Charles Darwin and Adam Smith continue to star on the British paper notes.

Since the design change of the £5 has brought attention to the relevance of the background illustrations, it has increased the awareness of detail on the notes that have been in circulation for years. Looking closely at the £20 note, the design begins to make sense. Adam Smith’s portrait stares forward at an illustration of a pin factory. This is something Smith used to describe the benefits of the division of labour in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The £10 note, on the other hand, contains a combination of images. Since Charles Darwin was a naturalist, flora, fauna and a nautilus shell are used to represent the species he discovered whilst travelling the world aboard the ship HMS Beagle (also features in the illustration). Other elements are made up of a compass and magnifying glass.

Matthew Boulton, the face of the £50 note, was a manufacturer and business partner of James Watt, a famous Scottish engineer. They were both involved with the Industrial Revolution, which had a serious impact on Britain, thus making them significant people to remember. To illustrate Boulton’s role, images of a factory, cogs and wheels, and the Whitbread Steam Engine, adorn the background of the note.

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However, the inclusion of portraits on British money is only a recent idea. When the first Bank of England notes were issued, they were handwritten, denoting the amount they were worth. This is presumably where the idea of cheques developed from. Eventually, the notes were printed by machine, but it was not until the 20th century that colour and calligraphic design began to appear.

The only monarch to feature on British paper money is the current queen, Queen Elizabeth II. Her portrait was first used in 1960, seven years after her coronation. Notes have since been gradually updated throughout the Queen’s life in order to keep the portrait up-to-date.

For a decade, Queen Elizabeth II was the only person – discounting Britannia who has been on every note from the very start – to feature on British notes. The 1970s brought about the commencement of historical character designs, beginning with William Shakespeare on the £20.

Since then, numerous famous people have been displayed on notes of all values. The £5 note has been home to the portraits of the Duke of Wellington (1971), George Stephenson (1990) and Elizabeth Fry (2002). The £10 note featured Florence Nightingale (1975), Charles Dickens (1991) and Charles Darwin (2000). The £20: Shakespeare (1970), Michael Faraday (1991), Sir Edward Elgar (1999), and, as already mentioned, Adam Smith (2007). Other people to have been used are Sir Isaac Newton (£1, 1975), Sir Christopher Wren (£50, 1981), and Sir John Houblon (£50, 1994).

The notes all have security features to determine whether they are real, for instance, the watermark of the Queen that only appears when held up to a light. What many people do not realise, the way of being sure whether the money is real or fake, is a hidden number that cannot be seen by the naked eye. To see these numbers, an ultra-violet light is needed to reveal the red and green fluorescent ink on the front (Queen side) of the note.

The Bank of England Museum has an ultra-violet light for visitors to test their own money with. The special dye has been used on all notes produced by the bank, so if no hidden number lights up, you are in trouble!

To see the changes in note design from the 1700s until the present day, the Bank of England Museum has a timeline of the changes on display for everyone to see. It is interesting to discover how different the old money looks, yet also how similar the design is too. Coins are also exhibited, which go back further than the present Queen, to feature the heads of previous monarchs.

As well as bank notes, the museum also focuses on the history of the Bank of England, for example, the early years, 1694-1800; the Rotunda, 1800-1946; and the modern economy, 1946 until the present day. There are many hands-on activities for children (and adults) to play with, from jigsaw puzzles to interactive screens. And, most importantly, do not forget to (attempt) to pick up the genuine gold bar!

The Bank of England Museum is located on Bartholomew Lane, London, EC2R 8AH, and is free entry to all visitors.

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