Saturday, December 20, 2014

Factory chimneys across the River Eden

When we visited Aix-en-Provence and Mont Sainte-Victoire, a couple of years before France adopted the Euro, it was mildly gratifying to be able to pay for things using Paul Cézanne banknotes.  At that time the 50 Franc notes honoured another of my heroes, Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe 20 Franc Debussy notes featured landscapes on both sides: a stormy sea representing La Mer, and scenery for Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), originally painted by Lucien Jusseaume and Eugène Ronsin.  I suppose the Euro notes that replaced these might be seen as having a tangential landscape association, but the bridges on them are really generic symbols rather than specific landmarks (unlike the original designs which included the Rialto Bridge in Venice and the Pont de Neuilly in Paris).  Bridges are popular currency motifs - outside the Eurozone Denmark uses them and here in Britian we can spend five different Bank of Scotland notes, ranging from the 14th century Brig O'Doon (£5) to the Kessock Bridge, completed in 1982 (£100).

Another landscape painter honoured on a banknote is Edvard Munch - he appears with his painting, The Sun on Norway's 1000-kroner note.  There has been a lot of praise this year for the new Norwegian note designs ('the world's coolest currency' according to Slate).  The original Snøhetta Design idea was to pair black and white coastal photographs with pixelated colour versions.  The Norges Bank has kept the pixels but gone for more traditional images on the obverse.  Personally I am even more envious of the new Norwegian passports, designed by Neue, which the Guardian described as 'beautifully simplified depictions of Norway’s natural landscapes drawn with fine lines in pastel shades ... When shone under UV light, the landscapes within the pages transform to show the northern lights in the night sky, a magical touch that adds a deeper sense of intrigue to the already striking document.'

Of course there are many examples of landscapes on banknotes, from the dramatic mountains of Guilin on China's 20 yuan, to the Ulster Bank's vignette's of the Mourne Mountains, Giant's Causeway and Queen Elizabeth Bridge (another one...)  There was a time when individual banks in England as well as other parts of the British Isles issued their own notes. The British Museum site explains how these became increasingly sophisticated in the nineteenth century with the use of steel engraving:
'Printers such as Perkins and Heath in London and W.H.Lizars in Edinburgh exploited this potential to produce exquisite banknote designs combining dazzling machine-engraved patterns – a trademark of Perkins’ firm – with delicate hand-engraved figures and rural scenes that reflected a growing taste for romantic landscape, evident in the popularity of topographical prints, watercolours and poetry. A wonderful note of the Carlisle City and District Banking Company carries a panoramic view of the city with its castle, cathedral, houses and factory chimneys across the River Eden; people stroll in fields in the foreground, while on the far bank cattle are wading and a line of washing is hanging out to dry.' 
This kind of local pride expressed through banknotes seems remote in the era of e-commerce and bitcoins.  Will physical money last any longer than passports or stamps?  I have written here before about landscapes on stamps, which represented the beauty and productive potential of far flung imperial territories.   It would be interesting to compare the iconography of banknotes, which represent financial geography, with stamps that link territories together.  Clearly a lot of thought goes into what they show as well as the ways in which they resist counterfeiters.  The Bank of Canada museum, for example, quotes an internal memo from 1954: 'the traditional ornamentation of bank notes reflects a ‘Victorian’ taste in design….derived from times associated with an immature, colonial status.'  Instead,
'officials at the Bank wanted the notes to feature images of Canadian landscapes that showed little or no evidence of human activity. They chose the final 8 images from over 3,000 photographs supplied from the collections of railways, archives and news agencies. From the Maritimes, through Eastern Canada, the Prairies, the Rockies and the North, what resulted was an extended portrait of The Great Lone Land vision of Canada. This vision was already out-dated, but served as the natural starting point for an evolving manifestation of official identity that would be played out on all future bank notes.'
Bank of Canada 1954 note showing Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, 
engraved by William Ford of the American Bank Note Company

Earlier this year the Huffington Post reported on calls to have a woman on Canadian notes for the first time - their suggestions include Margaret Atwood, Emily Carr (the subject of a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery that I'll probably be writing about here soon) and, er, Shania Twain ("Canadian country and pop music star, famous for hits such as 'Man! I Feel Like a Woman.'")  Over here there was controversy recently at the announcement that a man (Churchill) would replace a woman, Elizabeth Fry, on the £5 note, until the Bank of England said it was planning to balance things out with Jane Austen on the next £10.  I'll end here on an Icelandic note with another landscape painter, Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval, depicted on the 2000 Kronur.  Björk, who will surely feature on the Icelandic currency herself before too long, named an instrumental after him on the album she recorded as an eleven-year-old in 1977.


Mike C. said...

Great post -- I still have not got over the surprise of seeing my personal Dada pinup, Sophie Taeuber Arp, on the Swiss 50 franc note!

Best wishes for 2015,


Plinius said...

Yes - they have Giacometti and Le Corbusier too. The first Swiss banknotes were designed by the landscape painter Ferdinand Hodler.

Thanks for your comments Mike - much appreciated.