Sterling work at the Bank: Look at the fiver in your pocket. The man who designed it says it's as close to art as he can get it. Roger Withington explains why to Dalya Alberge, while three artists compare notes on improving the face value of the pound

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE PAPER money in your wallet would look very different if the man who designed it had his way. Roger Withington, banknote design manager at the Bank of England, would give it a cleaner, simpler look, getting closer perhaps to the design of 300 years ago. But, after 25 years, he is resigned to working within the rigid framework laid down by his employer.

'You can't be imaginative. You're not dealing with an imaginative customer,' he said.

The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is, he said, 'very traditional and old-fashioned in her thinking'. Mr Withington is not invited to the meetings at which his design proposals are discussed. You understand what he is up against when you hear that the previous chief cashier thought the idea of his signature appearing on notes in blue ink was 'a bit radical'.

Considering that we get new notes only once every 10 to 20 years, you would not imagine that the Bank needs a full-time designer. But each series takes up to five years to produce, from start to finish. Work on the final stages of the pounds 50 note is in progress, ready for its issue in early 1994. And over the last year, Mr Withington has also been modifying existing designs - the Bank's response to hundreds of complaints that the notes are indistinguishable from each other.

From this week, it is distributing a pounds 5 note with more clearly defined denomination symbols. But the modification is restricted merely to darkening slightly the colour of the denomination symbols. The Bank prefers to keep its notes hard to read; the theory is that faint, washed-out colours are harder to copy and the public is forced to scrutinise the notes more carefully, encouraging us to peer not just at the symbols, but at the watermark and the metal strip. However, the Bank has liaised closely with groups such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Mr Withington's design incorporates symbols to aid visually-impaired people: a square for pounds 20 notes, a diamond for pounds 10 and a circle for pounds 5.

The rise of counterfeiting in the 1980s means security takes precedence over design. Mr Withington is part of a team that includes chemists, electricians and engineers, and he works to their technical specifications at the Bank of England printing works near Loughton in Essex.

For the current series, launched between 1990 and 1992, Mr Withington researched the historical figures to appear on the reverse side of notes. He was asked for a list of characters who 'weren't to be alive or a political problem'. He looked for interesting people with interesting faces and historical material that would offer good visual images. He produced 72 names, which was narrowed down to 16 by the Bank. Initially, Darwin seemed a good idea. But he was 'dumped', Mr Bevitt- Smith, the Bank's research and development manager, said, 'due to the change in current thought of the value of his work, although he was ideal from an artistic point of view - the birds et cetera'. Jane Austen, another candidate, was discounted, Mr Withington said, because there were not many realistic portraits of her.

Once the list was whittled down to four, Mr Withington drew portraits, amalgams from various sources - 'the hair off one portrait, the features off another'. For example, for the portrait of Michael Faraday, the father of electrochemistry, he tidied up his subject's mad-scientist hairstyle. After extensive research, Mr Withington incorporated aspects of Faraday's scientific work into the design. The pencil drawing was then translated into a line tint, 'more secure than if it were engraved. It blurs if anyone tries to photocopy it.'

For the portrait of the Queen, Mr Withington accompanied a photographer to have an up-to- date picture taken. The Queen picked out an image from which Mr Withington produced an enlarged drawing. That was then passed on to a specialist engraver, to produce an intaglio engraving on steel, following the outlines of the drawing by cutting lines and dots with a point, a burin. It is a painstakingly slow process, which took nine months.

He is not particularly proud of the results. 'It's just a job. You're fed up with the sight of it.' When Mr Withington graduated as a graphic designer at Newport College of Art, he imagined he would go into book illustration or advertising. He saw an advertisement for the Bank of England design job. 'I didn't want it. I thought banknotes were boring things . . . I still wouldn't choose to do this.' After all these years, 'it would be nice to work on a bigger piece of paper'.

PETER BLAKE

'I'd have banknotes in basic primary colours - red, yellow, blue and green for each one. You'd get colour recognition at a glance. At the moment, you really can't tell the difference between the pounds 10 and pounds 20 notes. I'd keep them the same size. In each corner, I'd have the denomination embossed so you could feel it. It would not be braille, but the actual symbol. I'd change the heroes. We could have sportsmen, characters from fiction, perhaps Alice in Wonderland (see sketch, above) and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and comedians. But I'd still have the Queen's head. I want to continue the tradition while changing the context in which they appear. I'd also change the designs regularly - almost as regularly as stamps, so people could collect them. Peter Blake is exhibiting at Waddington Galleries, Cork St, London W1 (071-437 8611).

JUNE REDFERN

'I'm sick of faces. I'd love to see paintings on notes, perhaps little landscapes within the watermarks. People would hold up the notes to the light and say, 'there's a Blake, a Bellany, a Redfern' and then ask their friends, 'what have you got?'. I'd like to see something very beautiful, not something that has associations with money. Colour is the thing I'd go for. Perhaps wondrous pinks and oranges. People would get a wonderful feeling of great beauty and light, not think here's a boring old fiver. Or how about paintings from the National Gallery? Perhaps a Piero della Francesca. I wouldn't have that boring image of the Queen. She looks really fed up. I'd have her sitting on a horse (see figure on horseback, above). That would be her natural habitat.' June Redfern is exhibiting in Birmingham, at MAC, Cannon Hill Pk, 6 Mar-11 Apr.

PETER HOWSON

'I'm sick of seeing the heads of the Queen and famous people. (Scottish notes are not too bad; they have animals on them.) So I decided in my sketches to put in the anonymous underclass. I included two kinds of people - the down-and-out unemployed and the thug, the football hooligan (see above). I want notes to reflect how I see society. I've been reading so much about violence - youth violence and child violence. I've been depressed about it. I wanted to put that down on a banknote. There is an irony in that money is the root of all evil. There are no hidden messages. I would make the denomination very clear. I'd also use strong colours, using a limited range of them. On this pounds 5-note, I might use green, black and dark ocre yellow, almost khaki.' Peter Howson is exhibiting at Flowers East Gallery (081-985 3333) until 14 Mar.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments