England’s First QEII One-Pound Note

Peter Symes

On 17 March 1960 the Bank of England issued a new one-pound note. Within days of the new note being released the Bank of England was hosing fires of disapproval, questions were being asked in Parliament, and thoughts of remedy were being considered. The one-pound note was significant for several reasons. Most importantly, it was the first note issued by the Bank of England to carry the portrait of a reigning monarch. Until this issue, the only person to have been depicted on a note issued by the Bank of England was Britannia. The issue was also significant because the notes were reduced in size and they were produced on a web printing press.

            In the mid-1950s the Bank of England decided to introduce a new series of notes, which would come to be known as the ‘Series C’ notes. The man chosen to design the series was Robert Austin R.A., President of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours and Professor of Engraving at the Royal College of Art. Appointed in 1955, he commenced his task in May 1956 by directing a senior assistant of Dorothy Wilding, the court photographer, in taking portraits of Her Majesty; although his final portrait was not based exclusively on these photographs.

            During the project Austin’s relationship with the Bank of England was not smooth. His early designs were rejected by the Chief Cashier, L. K. O’Brien, and he found the deliberate pace of the Bank and its decision-making processes oppressive. Austin made his task more difficult by choosing to depict The Queen with open lines, rather than cross-hatched engraving, which is usually employed for portraits, and this caused technical problems. There were also differing opinions within the Bank concerning the artistic merit of Austin’s design. However, as the project developed there were fears that Austin might break with the undertaking if criticism of his designs became too great.

            The final design was presented to The Queen for approval. Although officially countenanced, a personal letter from The Queen’s Private Secretary to the Bank suggested that Her portrait might be enhanced with a little more definition to her chin. This suggestion was not incorporated in the final design.

            Public reaction to the notes was swift, critical and came from various quarters. The first to vent their frustration was the National Union of Bank Employees through their president, Mr. E. W. Bell. The new notes had their serial numbers in the top left and bottom right, which were the opposite corners to the notes currently in circulation. According to Mr. Bell, this meant that tellers could no longer see the serial numbers as they flicked through the top-right corners of a bundle of notes. Tellers would have to ‘work left handed or upside down’!

            Letters to the newspapers followed, usually decrying the poor design of the note. The following extracts are from letters to London’s Daily Telegraph:

The following extracts are from letters to the Times:

Of course, after some time the inevitable wag wrote to the Times stating simply: ‘Sir, I like the design of the new £1 notes.’ The reduction in size of the notes was a major discussion point, which was noted in this letter to the Times:

‘Whatever the artistic and/or practical merits or demerits of the new notes, one fact seems pretty certain—namely, the inadvisability to reduce the size on any note when changing the design. It is bound, consciously or otherwise, to induce reflections on the declining purchasing power, and, true as that unfortunately may be, it is psychologically highly unwise to emphasize it in such a quasi-official and obvious way.’

            In Parliament, Lord Conesford asked whether the Bank of England loved bad design for its own sake and Mr. Shepherd noted in the House of Commons that the note was ‘weak, flabby and unimpressive’. Mr. Harold Wilson (yet to become Prime Minister) opined that the design was more like ‘the sort of thing which advertising agents put through the letter box to enable one to get a packet of detergent at 3d off the cost’. It was generally thought that the portrait of The Queen was less than perfect, although there seems to have been little open criticism of Her Majesty’s image. However, the art critic Terence Mullaly did note that The Queen’s portrait was bad.

            In an effort to address their critics, the Bank of England appointed two art experts to the committee responsible for the design of the notes. One was Sir Gordon Russell, who was a former director of the Council of Industrial Design, and the other was the art critic Professor Anthony Blunt (later found to be a Soviet spy). On reviewing Austin’s design for the forthcoming ten-shilling note, Sir Gordon noted that it was a ‘curious assortment of unrelated shapes’. After minor changes, the note was issued on 12 October 1961 to a public that barely raised a murmur. There was, it appears, little new to criticize. However, by this time the Bank was weary of Mr. Austin and Mr. Austin had suffered enough of the Bank – so he resigned. A preliminary design for a five-pound note by Reynolds Stone had been preferred to a design prepared by Austin. Indeed, it appears that the Bank of England may have forced Austin’s hand, by announcing that a different portrait of Her Majesty was being considered for the higher denomination notes. The article in the Daily Telegraph announcing the new one-pound note stated: ‘A similar portrait will be used on the 10s notes, but it may differ on the £5 and £10 notes.’ Reynolds Stone subsequently designed the higher denomination notes of ‘Series C’.

            In hindsight, the Austin designs for the £1 and 10/- notes are not the most memorable designs ever created and his portrait of The Queen is one of the more wooden representations of Her Majesty. However, very little should ever be read into the opinions of the public and the press, as it is usual that only dissenting opinions are voiced.

This article was completed in March 2003
© Peter Symes