In the next five years the British people have a momentous decision to make. Sure, there’s set to be a referendum on the UK’s relationship with Europe that could change the fortune of every single subject in the kingdom and drastically change the future direction of one of the world’s largest economies. But we’re also going to choose the face that will grace the non-royal side of the new £20 note and – man alive– that will really unleash the political animal in us all.
Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, made a speech at the V&A to get people’s creative juices flowing. Why the V&A? Because whether a painter, a designer, a sculptor or a film director, this note will star an artist. The rules are that they can’t be living and they can’t be fictional, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Dead and real, then. But who? In his speech, Mr Carney urged the public to think beyond “the most famous and the most obvious”.
Here are a few names that might fit the bill, both literally and metaphorically: Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Barbara Hepworth, Amy Winehouse, JMW Turner, Ian Dury, Francis Bacon, Charlie Chaplin, Lord Reith, John Lennon, Beatrix Potter, Lucian Freud, George Orwell, HG Wells, JG Ballard, John Peel, Ronnie Barker, JRR Tolkien or David Abbott. There we have music, film-making, visual art, literature, comedy, broadcasting and advertising: the British are wonderful at them all. Are they all encompassed in the envelope of art that Mr Carney was talking about? They’ll have to be for the time being.
I would love to see Amy Winehouse on a banknote more than I’d like to see John Lennon. Amy Winehouse, sadly metaphorical, like cash in hand itself was there one minute, frittered away the next. Her image, a silhouette of beehive hair and heels, is on its way to becoming iconic. How do you choose between Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick? Both were complicated geniuses and impresarios of whom we’re rightly proud. Chaplin had a strange way with women but is that enough to cancel out his might, invention and brilliance? Should currency be political and judgemental at all?
Should we split our novelists into children’s and adults’? Can you choose a winner between Beatrix Potter and JRR Tolkien or between Orwell and Wells as political writers? Would JG Ballard’s dystopian ideas be welcome as legal tender in your local pub? The titanic battle to be the best dead artist of the 20th century rages on between Freud and Bacon – why not decide it on a piece of paper with which you pay for eight minutes of parking around Monocle HQ’s studios?
My instinct is that a lady might win and it looks good for Barbara Hepworth – and why not? Modern and modernist, flinty and charming, emollient and without the ego of many of her male competitors, Hepworth would be a popular choice and a wise one. But who cares for wisdom? I’d choose David Abbott, Britain’s greatest advertising creative who came up with the poster “‘I never read The Economist.’ Management trainee. Aged 42.” and others. After all, the dividing line between art and commerce is paper-thin. As thin as what? You guessed it.
- Robert Bound is Monocle’s Culture editor.*