Winter 1991

The meaning of money

Bank notes change hands without so much as a second glace – a daily act of faith that says much about our belief in their value. Yet these intricate artefacts are complex carriers of meaning. What makes a banknote look like a banknote and how does the global graphic language of money communicate its message?

Since paper money was first introduced in Sweden in the mid-seventeenth century, it has acquired meanings and uses far beyond those for which it was originally intended. Once a simply rendered, promissory IOU drawn upon the reserves of precious metals, coins and goods held by bankers and merchants, printed money has become more than just a commonly agreed system of economic exchange; it is a heavily loaded, ubiquitous cultural artefact which depends for its continued existence on a massive and continuous act of faith on the part of its users. Furthermore, since paper money no longer represents or reflects the bullion and specie held by the issuing bank, but is simply a means of exchange at an agreed value, it must function as a sign, a symbol, a token or a sacrament. Like any sacrament, its power, longevity and desirability depend on the feelings it inspires in those who are in contact with it.

The physical nature of paper money reflects this function; its look and feel is designed to promote belief in its value. To produce a rectangular piece of paper which is as instantly recognisable as a banknote requires the use of a range of techniques and materials which together constitute the global graphic language of printed money. This language is based on historical precedent, tradition and a seemingly unshakeable belief in the medium in spite of the hyperinflationary experiences of Germany in the 1920s, Hungary in the 1940s and more recently, Brazil and eastern Europe. It seems that tradition is the key word in understanding the power, appeal and acceptance of banknotes as a means of exchange; people have confidence in paper money when it exhibits certain characteristic features. This is why most banknotes are made from durable, high-quality rag papers. Henry Portal, the paper manufacturer supplying the Bank of England, also supplies quality webs of paper to banking institutions in over a hundred countries. The paper is then printed and overprinted with complex, often multi-coloured intaglio or intaglio-style designs. Watermarks, a further anti-forgery device, are positioned in the paper by means of a wax inprint during manufacture. At this stage, a metallic thread made by the issuing bank can also be incorporated into the fabric of the note. The familiar combination of cross-hatched, engraved images viewed against densely complex, colour-printed, geometric backgrounds is an instantly recognised sign of a dependable bankable currency. The inclusion of ever more complex designs rendered in colour dates principally from the perfection of photographic techniques towards the end of the nineteenth century. During this period, the ease with which the one-sided, monochrome, copperplate-scripted banknotes could be forged became a real threat to the integrity of paper money.

Even today, many banknotes have retained the floridity and pomposity usually associated with the institutional and corporate design of the late-nineteenth century, partially due to the nature of the intaglio design work. Some form of intaglio is a constant in banknotes the world over; the images seen on paper money are often redolent of the time when engraving was the only way to mass produce complex pictorial representations of any subtlety and depth. Indeed, the design team at the Bank of England is composed of designers with fine art-related backgrounds and trained engravers who fulfil the traditional role of turning an image, which is tonal and artistically derived, into one which can be mass produced. Because of this historical and technological link with the past, banknotes tend to be identified as part of a very particular tradition. Their designs exude an atmosphere of authority and stability, history and sober dependability.

However, the appearance of some banknotes as engraved, miniature masterpieces, belies the production process by which they came into being. Bank of England notes are a case in point: although they rely for their look on the engraving skills of the Bank of England’s designers and engravers, the most widely circulated notes, the £5 and £10, have been printed on web litho machines since the 1960s. Only the higher denominations, £20 and £50, are still printed using sheet-fed presses carrying recess-line printing plates. At first glance, and to the untrained eye, some of the litho-produced notes exhibit characteristics of the intaglio-printed notes in terms of line, and the rendering of the light and shade. Whether intaglio or litho-printed, the banknote is part of a rare breed of mass produced, graphically designed objects employing minute and complex detail in the creation of immediately readable images on a significantly large scale.

The banknote is imbued with weighty cultural significance, but this is no less than we expect from the money in our pockets. Currency, in the form of paper money, can operate as a badge of nationally and internationally recognised cultural and economic legitimacy. For this reason, images of heroic patriots framed by flounces and swags can be viewed alongside depictions of hard-won nationhood and valiant, allegorical figures. These are themes which have retained their appeal to both banknote designers and users alike. Nearly all banknotes produced throughout the world still feature vignettes of national heroes or heroic acts.

These are, however, a growing number of exceptions to this rule, most notably in the design of Dutch banknotes, which were revamped by R. D. E. Oxenaar and J. J. Kruit in 1982. The notes maintain a certain traditional cultural emphasis by featuring illustrations of Joost van den Vondel, a poet, Frans Hals, a painter, and among other elements, a lighthouse and a snipe. There is no riot of highly visible and obviously historicist heroic complexity. Bold sans serif typefaces complement the use of strong, vibrant, colourways in marked contrast to the sober miasma of dun browns and greens which characterise dollars, French francs and other major currencies. Nevertheless, these Dutch denominations follow in the tradition of banknote and other fine engraving, particularly in the rendering of the flower on the 50 guilder note, which features almost impossibly infinite detail in the depiction of the carpel, petals and other parts. Dutch banknotes also feature an embossed strip which differs according to denomination, to allow the blind to distinguish each by touch.

Just as the advent of a new technology threatened the nineteenth-century banknote with the prospect of easy forgery, so the technology of today is responsible for certain changes and developments in banknote design. Traditional engraving techniques are augmented with newer techniques, such as computer-aided design, to produce banknotes beyond the capabilities of the forger and with all the cultural and historical resonances intact. The quality and adaptability of colour photocopying techniques has prompted the new ‘E’ series Bank of England notes to use colours which are reputedly beyond the reproductive range of commercial colour copiers, yet these notes are anticipated to remain difficult to counterfeit only until the year 2000. Banknote designers are continually forced to adopt newer technologies in the battle against forgery.

Australia has used a holographic image of Captain Cook, instead of the metallic thread, as an anti-forgery device in Harry Williamson’s aboriginal designs for the bicentenary celebrations. Yet holograms are now reproducible by forgers. Perhaps for this reason, and not least because of the public trust in what are seen as traditional designs, the medium still clings to the idea of tradition in its appearance, its method of rendering images, and much of the subject matter. If banknotes have moved away from their role as an internationally recognisable badge of imperial status, featuring the heads of state and advertising national characteristics, then it has been a move towards a culturally supportive role. As history has witnessed the dissolutions of vast empires over the last century, so the need for imperial imagery has declined and the symbolic rendering of the cultural, economic and scientific wealth of nations has become more common. It is not coincidence that the figures of Britannia or the Duke of Wellington no longer appear on Bank of England notes. The bank is consciously trying to promote a friendlier, more cultured image for the nation. It is a phenomenon not confined to the UK. After all, Claude Debussy, Hector Berlioz, Alvar Aalto, Michael Faraday, George Washington, Florence Nightingale and an anonymous, body-painted aborigine have little in common, except for their presence on the banknotes of their respective nations.

First published in Eye no. 5 vol. 2, 1991

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