Harry Eccleston: The first in-house artist-designer at the Bank of England

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The Independent Online

Harry Eccleston was an artist and bank-note designer who worked for the Bank of England for 25 years and was responsible for the pictorial "D" series of banknotes, issued in 1970. Each denomination featured an historical figure, the £5 note bearing the portrait of the Duke of Wellington after the celebrated painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Among the many meticulous preparatory drawings he made were the portrait of the Queen (entailing several royal sittings in Buckingham Palace) and details of weapons and military uniform for the Peninsular War scene on the reverse of the note.

Describing the experience in a letter he praised the skill of his engraver colleague, David Wicks, writing "...how different security engraving is from normal engraving, particularly in the control of line spacing. To see your drawing turned into this was unbelievable." It is typical of Eccleston's generous modesty that whenever he mentioned his work at the Bank he never failed to express his admiration for the skill of the craftsmen who translated his designs into the complex filigree of engraved line. From 1967 onwards he became the first person to hold the post of bank-note designer full-time, and in 1979 he was awarded an OBE in recognition of his services.

Harold Norman Eccleston was born in 1923 in Coseley, in the industrial Midlands. He attended Bilston School of Art and in 1939 went on to Birmingham College of Art. In 1942 he was called up to the Royal Navy, serving as an officer until demobilisation in 1946. Then, back in Birmingham, he continued his studies, gaining an art teacher's diploma. There followed four years at the Royal College of Art where, in the School of Engraving, he worked under the guidance of Robert Austin. Austin had an astute appreciation of his gifted student's work and would later recommend Eccleston for the job at the Bank.

One of Eccleston's fellow students was Charles Bartlett (later the President of the Royal Watercolour Society) who, 45 years later, wrote of the eagerness with which he and the other ex-servicemen plunged into their studies under the disciplinarian Austin. He remembered Eccleston "the first time he came into the etching gallery. He was rather short, round, with a red face and a moustache and bursting with enthusiasm ... a very good draughtsman and an excellent craftsman".

After graduation, Eccleston moved south to teach at the South-East Essex Technical College and lived in the area for the rest of his life, although the Black Country remained his main artistic inspiration. In 2005, the City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery held a retrospective. There, among the drawings, paintings and etchings inspired by the life and work of the region, was an astoundingly well-observed pencil rendering, made when he was 12, of his cousin's motorbike. "It was the first time I looked at something hard and discovered that one can draw real things," he said later. The closely analysed depiction of this machine seemed to me to be the precocious harbinger of the meticulous masterpieces of his maturity.

He was an enthusiastic teacher, of whom one student remarked: "He taught me I had a talent, even though I didn't believe it myself". He relished teaching and even when eventually working full-time as an artist, he continued to conduct an evening printmaking class in Dagenham. A member of that class, Jane Stobart, recalled her first meeting with Eccleston; she was in her early twenties and perplexed when he told her that she would probably attain her best work at about the age of 40. She soon discovered what he meant: that success in printmaking demanded a lifelong process of technical as well as creative mastery. She and her fellow students embarked on the course with recreational intentions, but Eccleston's inspirational teaching helped them to achieve work of a very high standard and for many the experience was life-changing. Two of his students, Cliff Richards and Mike McGuiness, became distinguished designers and Stobart herself turned permanently from professional illustration to printmaking.

Eccleston was no mean engraver himself. When Norman Ackroyd RA was teaching etching at the then Central School of Arts and Crafts he often invited Harry to demonstrate engraving to his students, there being no substitute for seeing the hands of a master-craftsman at work. Harry almost caressed the plate with the burin and effortlessly caused the fine shreds of copper to rise curling from the tool.

In 1949 Eccleston became an associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, 12 years later a Fellow, and then, in 1975, he was elected the Society's President. The Society, founded by Seymour Haden in 1880 in reaction to the Royal Academy's refusal to recognise etching and engraving as a legitimate pursuit for an Academician, had itself become entrenched in its emphasis on black-and-white prints; there was a lingering suspicion of colour, of such media as lithography, screenprint and, eventually, of computer-generated images. Eccleston urged the acceptance of a wider range of printmaking activity and began what turned out to be the long, complicated process of modifying the Society's title and hence the Royal Charter which had been awarded by Queen Victoria in 1888. At last, the new title, the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, was given the Royal assent in 1991, two years after the end of Eccleston's presidency.

Throughout, his creative work was unstinting. His became a Fellow of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1975 and from 1969 until 1980 worked on the Caponfield series, a suite of etchings with aquatint, inspired by the steel works among which he had grown up. The print-publisher Robin Garton spotted the only almost-complete set on the walls of Jolyon Drury where they had hung for the best part of 20 years. Captivated, he determined to commission and publish an edition. I was asked to be the printer and I met Harry for the first time in January 1996, when he turned up at my house with the plates. They were zinc and he told me that, over the previous three years, he had painstakingly rescued them from that metal's typical corrosion – a labour that seems to have given him therapeutic relief while caring full-time for Betty, his seriously ill wife. Eventually 25 sets, plus five sets hors de commerce, were published, nearly 30 years after work on the first plate had begun.

From 1977 to 1979 he produced a set of four majestic etched and aquatinted prints of the interior of the British Steel Works at Bilston, a factory he was able to see from the bedroom window of his childhood home. These were followed by his Stratford Variations (1982–84), poetical etched transformations of the telephone wires and other electrical installations on which he had pondered during train-changing waits at Stratford station; and by two similarly inspired Stockholm Variations in 1986.

Harry's professional connections were many: he was a member of the Royal West of England Academy and of the Art Workers' Guild; an honorary member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and of the New English Art Club; and he received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Wolverhampton in 2003. But his greatest charm was his gregariousness. A visit with him to an exhibition was always enhanced by his enthusiastic, insightful commentary. Ever the genial host, he loved entertaining friends to lunch at London's Dover Street Arts Club, of which he was an appreciative habitué.

He was a member of the Wynkyn de Worde Society, too, and seldom missed its lunches and the opportunity to converse with others passionate about everything to do with print. As Norman Ackroyd remarked, "he was enormously generous, much loved and admired by all of us in the trade".

He was ever conscious of the needs and feelings of others: after stepping down from his presidency of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers he made a point of no further involvement in its politics, anxious that his presence should not be an encumbrance to successors. Once, while at a party, I overheard mention of the name Eccleston. "Could that be the Harry Eccleston I know?" I interrupted. "There IS only one Harry Eccleston!" came the rejoinder. A perfect epitaph.

Anthony Dyson

Harold Norman Eccleston, artist and bank-note designer: born Coseley, West Midlands 21 January 1923; married 1948 Betty Gripton (died 1995; two daughters); died Upminster, Essex 30 April 2010.

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