Hit the right note

As the Bank of England releases the first banknote to be designed out-of-house, Clare Dowdy finds out how British currency has stayed true to its roots while incorporating sophisticated security features

There was a minor frisson in the world of banknotes on 13 March, when the first new note appeared since the Bank of England outsourced its design capability.

The Bank of England sold its printing works to De La Rue Currency in Essex exactly four years ago, at which point one or two of the bank’s three-strong design team transferred over.

‘We decided that banknote printing wasn’t our core business,’ explains Lee Dobney, the bank’s head of notes. ‘We don’t design banknotes very often, so it was inefficient to design our own.’ In fact, only four new designs have been issued in the past ten years – the £20 in 1999, the £10 in 2000, the £5 two years later and the updated £20 this month.

They may not come round that often, but a redesigned banknote is certainly worth the wait. The attention to detail and precision lavished on the creation of paper currency makes the average book cover look positively sloppy in comparison.

It’s all about trying not to sacrifice the aesthetics to the increasing plethora of security features, because the bank must keep one step ahead of those clever forgers. So the £20 is debuting a new style of watermark, for example, along with the usual gamut of hologram, silver thread and micro-lettering. After all, it is this denomination which is most targeted by fraudsters. As Dobney puts it, ‘We need to maintain the public’s confidence. It’s a relatively small piece of paper with a £20 sign and people accept that, but it only costs 4p to make.’

The bank briefed De La Rue Currency to come up with three design routes/ a traditional, a not-so-traditional, and a do-what-you-like. Dobney, the chief cashier and the Governor of the Bank of England, plumped for a relatively traditional option. Pictorially, the economist Adam Smith has replaced Sir Edward Elgar on the reverse. This note will sit alongside a collection of bygone samples from the last three centuries in the Bank of England Museum’s exhibition Security by Design.

The history of banknotes stretches back thousands of years: the Chinese have been using paper money since the seventh century, but it didn’t catch on in Europe for another millennium. It was in 1885 that Britain’s first fully printed notes appeared, meaning that cashiers no longer had to sign each one individually.

Since then, our currency has been through a number of evolutions, which in the 20th century came to be labelled as A Series, B Series and so on. We’re now up to E.

The Britannia A Series, which made its appearance in 1925, was still in circulation 35 years later. The only major changes were the issue of emergency war colours, mauve for the ten shilling note and pink for the £1.

It was with the D Series that the first £20 note appeared in 1970, though this and its peers were given a design overhaul in the 1990s because of counterfeiting trends, explains Dobney.

The £20 issued in 1970 was illustrated on the back with a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the work of the bank’s most famous designer, Harry Eccleston.

In 1958, Eccleston was made the bank’s first full-time artist-designer. Perhaps more artist than designer, John Keyworth, the curator of the Bank of England Museum, recounts that Eccleston used to work in a smock. Those were the days when designers were part of the bank’s R&D department.

As well as the Shakespeare scene, Eccleston reworked the Queen’s image to better depict her with maturing years. Despite the somewhat frumpy royal representation, he picked up an OBE.

But it’s not just age that influences a design, fashions also come into play, explains Keyworth. ‘Britannia changes from a post-Restoration beauty showing a bit of décolletage to a prim Saxon princess in Victorian times,’ he says.

The production process is as complex as the design. The bank eschews wood pulp paper in favour of a more durable cotton fibre and linen rag mix. The notes are printed using a combination of intaglio (for the Queen’s portrait and the raised print), letterpress (for the cypher and serial numbers) and offset litho (for everything else). However, before that, the watermark design is engraved in wax and, like the metallic thread, the image is incorporated into the paper at the manufacturing stage.

Given the effort it takes to issue a new note, it’s perhaps no surprise that the bank has no current plans for any other changes.

Security by Design runs from 29 March to 26 October at the Bank of England Museum, Threadneedle Street, London EC2
All images © Bank of England

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