Tender women: Decorative images of women have been a recurring theme on banknotes since the 17th century. Iain Gale put his hand in his pocket

The Queen looks up from a five-pound note with a serene smile, her presence transforming what was a mere piece of paper into something of real value. But what of the other side? For hundreds of years, bankers have debated long and hard over what or who to show on the reverse of their currency. And nine times out of 10, the answer has been a woman.

An exhibition at London's British Museum demonstrates how frequently, since the Bank of England chose to decorate its first notes (issued in 1694, with the figure of Britannia), women have featured on banknotes. They were no fools back in the Glorious Revolution. Britannia's presence was intended as much for decoration as to subvert our natural perception of the nature of money itself.

When you characterise a note with the image of a national hero - the Duke of Wellington, for example, was until recently on our own fiver - you lend it something of the perceived characteristics of that person. Thus, the old five- pound note came to have a feeling of the tenacity, integrity and fortitude which history attaches to the victor of Waterloo.

Imagine the effect of marrying a national icon to a pretty face. Your note becomes immediately more attractive; a thing not only to be admired but coveted. Britannia, with her pleasantly Amazonian features and her allegorical significance of nationhood and endeavour, provides an ideal combination of the two. Similarly, while the French 100-franc note might carry the head of the painter Delacroix, he is only there as an adjunct: it is his half-naked creation, La Liberte, who dominates the note, bringing to it all her symbolic attributes. If, in Britain, money is a national birthright, in France the implication is that it will set you free.

One thing which unites most of the figures of women on banknotes, however, seems to be their ample proportions. The Swedish Svea, for instance, on their 10-krona note, would be more at home in a Russ Meyer movie than sitting decorously with her pet lion in the national vault. If not shown bare- breasted, as in France, many of these women seem to have been dressed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. As a slight variation, the 1950s Swiss 50-franc note shows a mother breast-feeding. Either all bankers are mammary fetishists or there is some more profound reason at work. This, of course, is fecundity.

Even in the post-feminist world, women are still acknowledged as the bringers of life. A banknote bearing a fleshly mother-figure subtly implies growth. Often fruit itself is also present, reinforcing the prospect of a fertile economy. Money may make the world go round, but not without some help from mothers.

If this fascinating show has a subtext, it must be the irony that while women continue to feature on currency, the world's financial institutions are still male-dominated. And while this hegemony remains in place, the nature of women's popularity with those who approve the designs for banknotes will not change. Recession may deepen, the pound may be devalued, but with a pretty girl or a caring mother-figure in your pocket, you somehow just know that things can only get better.

'Beauty and the Banknote', British Museum, Gt Russell St, WC1 To 18 Sept

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?