Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Wanted: Artist's Face for £20 Note

Laura Knight with model, self-portrait, 1913, copyright artist's estate
So the Bank of England is looking for a new face for its £20 note, the face of a visual artist. We the public are being asked to make suggestions, a handful of which will eventually be presented to a committee including a trio of experts - among them Andrew Graham-Dixon - for a final decision. Given that the artist concerned has to be dead to qualify, we can't nominate Tracy Emin, Banksy or Grayson Perry. So who does that leave? Which no-longer-living artists still matter to people at large? Turner? Constable? Ravilious???

Barbara Hepworth, photo copyright Peter Keen, 1950s, NPG
These are all men, obviously, and here we have the first potential source of conflict. Today we are used to men and women sharing the white cube of the contemporary art space, but this relative equality is a recent phenomenon. Before Laura Knight's generation successful women artists were few and far between, and even during the 20th century there were not many household names. Come to think of it, Dame Laura would be a good choice, not a modern like Barbara Hepworth but a painter whose work has given pleasure to many.

I can't see AGD plumping for anyone from the last century. His History of British Art got through the interwar years in just a couple of pages. But Modern British is in the ascendant, and the auction houses would love to see Hepworth's face printed on the piles of money the publicity would generate. She has a good face for a banknote, a serious face with plenty of character. Then again, choosing Lucien Freud might give the Queen an opportunity for revenge; large HM on one side, tiny Lucien on the other...

JMW Turner, self-portrait, Tate
Is it unusual for a banknote to have potential as a marketing tool? I don't think the current incumbent of the £20 note, Adam Smith, makes anyone much money, does he? But an artist's image would surely do wonders for sales, especially if it's someone whose reputation could use a bit of a boost. Sir So'n'so Somebody, as featured on the new £20 note. Will there be lobbying by Interested Parties? What about artist in the Bank's own collection? It could all get rather murky.

Tim Spall as Turner, in Mr Turner, 2014
No doubt the bookies' money will be on one of the big names from the glory days of yore. Turner must be the front-runner, although people might not recognise him unless Timothy Spall reprises his movie role for the occasion. But there is a self-portrait in the Tate which would be perfect; the note could be launched at TB, alongside the mother of all Turner exhibitions. As well as the actual notes (Gift aided for the occasion?) we could buy postcards of the notes, not to mention teatowels, pencil cases and what have you.

Thomas Gainsborough, self-portrait, NPG
Gainsborough would make a rather more elegant subject. Although he hasn't been portrayed on the big screen lately, he would be no more obscure than Sir John Houblon, the 17th century banker who presently adorns £50 notes. His self-portraits are suitably dignified, whereas Turner may be a bit wild for a banknote. Stubbs is another option, perhaps represented by one of his horses. Hogarth is a contender too. And William Morris, though I'm not sure how he felt about the banking system. And Rossetti...

But the winner will no doubt be Turner, which is a shame. It would be fun to have the kids asking, 'Dad, lend us a Grayson.'

1 comment:

  1. The answer is Sir John Soane who designed much of the Bank of England now lost to the rebuilding in the 1930s.