On the Money

David Greenslade looks at the insight currency design gives us into the relationship between the global economy and national identity. Could Wales�s ailing economy be aided by the development of its own currency iconography?

Congratulations to David Greenslade, the winner of our 2014 Essay Competition 'Wales in Hard Times' (general prize), which invited creative responses to the economic crisis in post-devolution Wales. Si�n Tomos Owen won the Young Writers' Prize. We would like to extend our thanks to the National Union of Journalists for so generously sponsoring our competition.

It's well known that ‘brands’ are motivators when it comes to spending money. As much as the product, consumers want the prestige that comes with displaying top-end objects whether it's a car or a pair of trainers. In the same way, currency itself has become a means by which nations or groups of nations brand money and thus brand themselves with shared symbols. Unlike Scotland, Wales has no paper currency identity. ‘Brand’ decisions regarding paper money remain with the Bank of England. A mint issues metal, a bank issues notes. It remains an English (conceivably British) iconography that identifies cash spending in the hands of those who buy and sell in Wales.

In the wake of an economic crisis, what can currency design tell us about the nation-state, national identity and fiscal relationships within a global economy? In post-devolution Wales, could the introduction of Welsh currency graphic design strengthen a belief in the ability of semi-autonomous Wales to transform its stricken post-industrial economy?

The decimalisation of Sterling in 1971 not only harmonised British currency with the value system of European currencies, it also saw a concept shift in British currency design. While retaining the Queen’s portrait, heraldic emblems such as Britannia were dropped. The Bank of England chose instead to feature portraits of cultural figures, thus following an international branding trend initiated by the Bank of Netherlands in the 1960s.

The politics of state branding, when applied to currency design, has always projected ideas of national self towards those who use its coins and notes. A currency transaction lasts on average only twenty seconds and confirming a note takes less than five. Recognising a denomination relies more on size, texture and colour rather than text or noticing who is portrayed on a linen or polymer bill. Featuring portraits on a note suggests that participation in money exchange includes not only a shared belief in fiscal value, but also some trust in its ornamental flourishes. What might appear on a Welsh note? Would the presence of Welsh iconography on paper currency make any difference to the state of the country’s economy? If not, why not? If so, how?

The national branding power of coins was very much in W B Yeats’s mind when he chaired the 1927 Irish Parliamentary Coinage Committee. Four years after receiving the Nobel Prize, Yeats chose a mythic, agrarian theme – the pig, the horse, bull, cock, hare, salmon – for new Irish coinage. Yeats himself as an anti-counterfeit device appeared on the Bank of Ireland’s £20 note in 1986.

Featuring portraits of cultural figures on paper currency is only part of a bank’s national identity ploy. Currencies belonging to relatively authoritarian states (such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Moldavia, Malaysia etc.) reflect rather tired concepts of ‘strong’ national image and autocratic, almost divine, sovereign leadership. Paper notes in more democratic regimes, on the other hand, comfortably foreground ‘weaker’ cultural figures who may never have played a commanding, political role of any kind. Determining such a figure in a Welsh context might prove difficult, at best contentious.

In the UK, while the Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank can feature Scottish iconography and thus arbitrate aspects of national identity, Wales has no such privilege, which invites the question: were an imagined Banc Cymru to issue its own notes, whose portrait or what symbols might be shown there? Is currency identity in Wales even possible under the present-day devolution settlement?

Released on Decimal Day, 15 February 1971, the back of the new £20 sterling note featured William Shakespeare. The portrait is a full-figure statue with books and heads of royalty carved into the plinth. The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet forms the background. Subsequent cultural figures have included Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale. Clydesdale Bank notes have featured Robbie Burns and the Bank of Scotland has used Sir Walter Scott. The Bank of England has also selected Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson to hover among its luminaries. Who might fill this role for Wales?

When nominating figures, especially writers, for nation branding, currency technology itself raises all sorts of questions. A linen currency such as the US dollar, famous for its unchanging conservatism, shows how delicate a choice of cultural figure or writer, as opposed to statesman (there are no women on US dollar bills) can be. Human hair would appear to be an influential composition factor. The average contemporary note has around twenty main security features and concealing them among copious amounts of hair – whether beards or ringlets – is not uncommon.

In the case of Canada, the choice of literary figure proved to be a masterstroke. The writer himself (born 1937) was passed over by the National Bank of Canada as the topic of currency portrait. Rather, the $5 polymer bill, the ‘fin’ or ‘five spot’, featured not Mr Roch Carrier, author, but figures and text from his immensely influential short story, ‘The Hockey Sweater’.

Les hivers de mon enfance étaient des saisons longues, longues. Nous vivions en trois lieux: l’école, l’église et la patinoire; mais la vraie vie était sur la patinoire.

(The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places: the school, the church and the skating-rink; but our life was on the skating-rink.)

The opening lines of ‘The Hockey Sweater’ are known to almost every Canadian citizen. The combination of patriotism, sentiment, sport, the ‘north’ and linguistics plays a key role in keeping national currency ‘on guard’ for the whole of Canada.

As part of its semiotic, instant recognition strategy, authors on paper currency are now often portrayed with evidence of their literary work. Along with a One Peseta banknote from Spain in 1951, featuring Don Quixote (without his creator Cervantes), Roch Carrier’s, ‘The Hockey Sweater’ is a rare example where fictional (or mythic) content is privileged and the author almost entirely eclipsed.

William Tell has appeared on the Swiss frank, although not very recently. Pinocchio surely deserved his place but the Banca d’Italia was never that bold. Now it’s the euro. Pippi Longstocking appears on Swedish currency – along with a portrait of her creator Astrid Lindgren. Another Swedish note features Selma Lagerlöf on front with, on reverse, her character Nils Holgerssons flying on the back of a goose.

For reasons of fiscal security money is issued in series and for limited periods of time so the symbols can be changed. A central bank, in agreement with government, has this power. The procedure of featuring notable literary works complete with watermark and security thread passing through the face of an author is a relatively recent one. For their brief moment as icons on money, figures such as Norway’s Heinrich Ibsen, Spain’s Juan Ramon Jimenez, Denmark’s Hans Christian Anderson and even Portugal’s vorticist picture of Fernando Pessoa – separated as they are from any evidence or specimen of their writing – seem needlessly alienated from their texts.

Many countries, as well as featuring tractors and industry, sometimes give the-book-as-object a prominent position. As a pre-eminent institution the National Library could confidently fit the Welsh ‘icon’ bill, as could volumes of bound medieval manuscripts such as the Red Book of Hergest or The Book of Aneurin. These foundational works are safely distant from contemporary cavilling.

The ‘book’ as an anti-counterfeit object provides oblique surfaces where other security devices may be concealed – such as motion strips and holographic ink. The Icelandic ten crown note of 1981 featured a particularly charming domestic scene of an older person reading to a family group by firelight.

But it is a Romanian 200 lei note from 2006 that, more than any other, gives text and literary form a central place in modern currency. The note’s security thread passes through the upper hinge of an open book of poetry by Lucian Blaga. Blaga’s work – philosophy, theology, plays, essays and more – was banned under communism and his nomination for the Nobel Prize was blocked by his own country. Blaga, persecuted, mocked and prevented from publishing, is shown next to a volume clearly displaying verse stanzas. This note, positions the text of Blaga’s poem ‘Self Portrait’ alongside the author. This note, more than any other, deploys currency not just as legal tender but as a reconciling agency between a state and its people. While it cannot be determined whether the Lucian Blaga note (or even a William Shakespeare note) influences the turnover of an economy, these notes must influence attitudes in some way otherwise there wouldn’t be such controversy when they are chosen.

Contemporary design offers hand and eye opportunities to grasp money’s literary symbolism at every cash settlement. A great deal of currency iconography, from Australia to Israel, from Sweden to South Korea, frames the writer’s work within the state’s idea of shared or desired identity.

Historic cash notes in Wales, when they were issued, as with country banks in England, traditionally reflected the pretentions and pre-occupations of their districts – sheep, bulls, landscapes, coats of arms, grand buildings and so on. It should be noted that between 1969 and 1972 a private, commercial company called the Chief Treasury of Wales Ltd, based in Llandudno, briefly issued its own novelty, but legal, promissory notes. The archaic nature of these notes, however, including the list of fairly obscure individuals shown on them, simply underlines the level of judgement required for currency strategies. Speculation about what notes Sir Julian Hodge’s Commercial Bank of Wales (subsumed into the Bank of Scotland in 1988) might have issued, had it ever obtained the right, are almost futile.

Commonwealth of Australia notes have several times featured the striking profile of Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson, author of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, including the current £10 polymer bill with a complete micro-text version of his ballad, ‘The Man From Snowy River’. 

After years of intense public debate, in 2011 the Bank of Israel chose four writers, Leah Goldberg, Rachel Bluwstein, Nathan Alterman and Shaul Tchernichovsky over alternative proposals of notable prime ministers. In South Korea Shin Saimdang, a poet as well as artist, appears with a visual quotation from one of her paintings. This was also the case on the French 1993, 100 Franc note where Eugène Delacroix shares space with bare-breasted Marianne from his painting, Liberty Leading the People. Frieda Kahlo’s portrait on the Mexican 50 pesos note, on the other hand, is noticeably unsupported by a sample of her work.

Images of writers on paper currency are only very rarely taken from paintings. The likeness chosen for a plate engraving almost always comes from photography and in many cases from the earliest days of photography – the daguerreotype.

Within a year of its invention in 1839, the daguerreotype – chemical ‘sun painting’ – had spread worldwide. Daguerreotypes instantly liberated portrait-making from neo-classical entitlement where only the rich could afford to have their likeness made (and usually improved). Between 1840 and 1850 among uncountable others Schoenberg, Nietzsche, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Honor de Balzac, John Ruskin, Anthony Trollope, the Grimm brothers, the Rossettis, the Brownings, etc. joined in the global enthusiasm for being ‘daguerreotyped’. Literary sitters also included Charles Baudelaire who, despite being photographed innumerable times, caustically described the process as, ‘a form of lunacy ... loathsome, useless, trivial and tedious’.

As depicted on paper money, the benign, half-tone simulacrum of an author, along with fragments of work, gives issuing banks an opportunity to appropriate previously critical minds as part of national reputation. In many ways this neutralises an author through what Jean Baudrillard has called ‘false equivalence’ where truly meaningful objects, whether material, spiritual, political or abstract, can never be encountered as themselves. The pattern of an author on paper currency is cleansed of content and becomes part of the severely, non-ironic disguise of state. The author vanishes into an infinite echo of copies subject to inflation and devaluation as well as the deferment of a promissory note. The author becomes an obscure nudge during a commercial process.

When in April 2013 the Bank of England announced that Winston Churchill would replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note there were protests that a female reformer was being dislodged by a male gaze. With a subsequent announcement in July 2013 that the immense beard of Charles Darwin would be replaced on the £10 note by the soft, ruffled cap of Jane Austen there was a sense of redress. Austen has been a safe bet for the English psyche since long before Hampshire rebranded itself as Jane Austen Country (the same way that Dorset hills are branded as Hardy Country). The writer becomes a cipher – an appropriated sign, of value and of no value at the same time – which, in the end, is the very stuff of money as material object or catalytic token.

If Austen satisfied that particular cultural-political outcry why is no one asking for a Welsh presence on the paper money that people in Wales use to buy and sell? Is the finite, rectangular site of Welsh money off limits to a portrait of Owain Glyndŵr, Betsi Cadwaladr, the Davies Sisters or Williams Pantycelyn?

Imbued with subtle flourishes and insignia, the exchange deferral of money contaminates the potential incisiveness of literature even as it canonises the public face. Dickens, while alive, was a notable critic of social injustice, whereas on the £10 note he (and the quaint cricket match from Pickwick Papers) becomes breezily nostalgic. Currently Nigeria is having a debate as to whether Nobel Laureate, and former political prisoner, Wole Soyinka, should be on a proposed new note or should the position go to female figures of national emancipation. In this debate, it could be argued that the more indirect values of literature, paradoxically exalted within the frame of a financial instrument, win out over ideas of state. This could be why cultural figures are absent from some currencies and always will be. If, for example and for a moment, we imagine Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson portrayed on a US dollar bill, then we get some idea of the extent to which currencies are capable of carrying both the bottom line and complex emotion.

As for Wales and the influence of currency design (if any) on buying, selling, spending pricing, saving, inflation etc. during a protracted period of hardship ensuing from the global recession, which cultural giant could possibly and lightly carry the strange burden of fiscal identity? Candidates, safely protected by history might include, alchemist Ieuan Du, naturalist Edward Lluyd, economist Richard Price, heroine Jemima Nicholas or simply folk stereotypes such as the harpist, the miner and the farmer. What writer might genuinely claim to deserve a place on Welsh paper money? Who from Wales could possibly embody the qualities of nation builder, reformer, visionary, ritualist, poet and trickster? Iolo Morgannwg.

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