Get ready for a colossal row – an artist is to replace Adam Smith on the new £20 note

The argument over the person to replace Darwin on the British tenner, which resulted in death threats, has only just calmed down

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The Independent Online

Just when you thought it was safe to go into the pool of democracy, what with both the Prime Minister and the British national bird chosen via popular mandate (although the bird is yet to be announced), here we go again. This time, the question is about whose face will be on the new £20 note.

Rather thrillingly, it has been decreed that the successor to Adam Smith must be an artist. Or, says the Bank of England, “someone from the world of the visual arts” – so a sculptor, photographer, fashion designer, film-maker, architect, graphic designer or potter would all count. And we, the public can join in the game. What larks!

I predict an most enormous row, not least because the argument over the person to replace Darwin on the British tenner – which resulted in death threats and harassment for anyone who thought a woman could do the job (it is going to be Jane Austen) – has only just calmed down. The question of who is represented on our paper money is clearly a prickly subject, and as the £20 is still a note to command respect in your wallet, this is even pricklier.

At this point it is instructive to remind you of the rules. Annoyingly, the chosen artist must be dead, presumably to stop him or her walking around thinking they are monumentally rich. This is rather tiresome, since it rules out obvious candidates such as Tracey Emin, who would actually be rather fitting since she was once memorably photographed attempting to stuff bank notes into her vagina. Danny Boyle, Vivienne Westwood, Steve McQueen and Damien Hirst are also be ineligible, as is Grayson Perry, who would surely defuse the entire gender argument by appearing on the note in a frilly frock and wig.

Second, the artist must be British, which is nonsensical, since great art is surely above nationality and is thus a universal treasure for all to consume. Indeed, I think the perfect person to have his face on a banknote would be Pablo Picasso, given his continued ability to make millions in auction rooms. Andy Warhol would also be rather amusant, as he was one of the first artists to actually consider a mechanically reproduced banknote to be a work of art, and framed them a number of times – his face on millions of actual notes would be a rather brilliant piece of circular arty wit.

British artists whose names are already in the frame include L S Lowry, whom William Hill has named as the (rather dull) favourite, while Ladbrokes has cited William Hogarth and Richard Attenborough as joint favourites. Darling Dicky? De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and all that, but really? Above Hitchcock, Lean or Schlesinger? Forget about having after-dinner arguments about the merits of puffin over wren (and what about the hen harrier?). I foresee a summer crammed with spirited debate concerning Hogarth vs Gainsborough (and what about Carol Reed?). Banners outside the National Gallery? Placards beside the BFI?

Naturally the Female Problem, if one can (and indeed should) call it that, will accompany the entire debate, if not overshadow it completely, thanks to the idiot trolls who dogged the Austen campaign last year. The main problem about picking a female artist to go on a bank note is that there are not very many women who were represented in the world of the visual arts pre-1900.

And since we are keeping it strictly within these shores, we must discount the Mary Cassatt/Berthe Morisot Impressionist double act from Paris, American photographer Dorothea Lange, or Tamara de Lempicka, who was Polish. So, anyone demanding a woman will be facing a toss-up between Barbara Hepworth, Elizabeth Frink and the ceramicist Clarice Cliff, with perhaps Glaswegian artist Margaret Mackintosh, wife to Charles Rennie, as an outside runner. All of whom would be great on the banknote.

My own particular choice? If nationality were not a bar, I would cite Sonia Delaunay, currently the star of her own retrospective in Tate Modern. Painter, designer, graphic artist, sculptor and ceramicist, she was an unstoppable fountain of art and creativity throughout her long life. She anticipated everyone from Warhol to Craig-Martin, and an artist who stamped her vision on dresses, paintings, carpets, furniture and material, escaping two World Wars and triumphing in the most challenging of circumstances. She even found time to have a child.

But given the confinement of the remit, my vote for the £20 note would be an artist who crossed the divide between popular and highbrow, a textile designer, publisher, painter and also an activist who also pointed out the social problems which arise when a few people command power over all the £20 notes, and quite a few others do not. I give you William Morris.

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