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Turner’s £20 is ‘Most Secure and Colourful’ Banknote Ever

Foolproof: (from left to right) note designer Debbie Marriott, Michael Deriaz vice chair at Turner’s House and chief cashier Sarah John

Bank of England’s new polymer £20 notes featuring artist JMW Turner will be the most colourful and counterfeit-proof ever produced by the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street when £40bn newly minted notes are released into circulation on 20 February. That’s enough notes to circle the world seven times! 

Chief cashier, Sarah John, and bank note designer, Debbie Marriott, showcased the polymer note’s innovative design, new security features and production process at Sandycombe Lodge, the Isleworth house which Turner designed for himself.

John, who is responsible for circulation and security, explained that the new polymer £20 is the most secure Bank of England banknote yet. Two windows and a two-colour foil have been incorporated by cutting edge technology, making it difficult to counterfeit. Sarah joked, that for her mum, the most exciting new feature is her daughter’s signature on it in her role as chief cashier for the Bank of England.

“The £20 may be our third polymer banknote, but in some ways, it’s the biggest change to date, as the £20 note accounts for 50 percent of notes in circulation – that’s £40 billion worth!” said John, “It has been a huge printing job, with printing presses running for 14 months to ensure that we had adequate launch stocks.” 

Designer, Debbie Marriott, explained the complex four-year design process. One challenge was “copying the work of one of history’s greatest artists” and converting an oil work to something suitable for a banknote press. Banknote designs are created using a series of fine lines and specific colours similar to traditional engraving, which is very different to the subtle blending of colours used in oil work.

Purple ink: Light is therefore colour” from an 1818 lecture by Turner refers to the painter’s innovative use of light, shade, colour and tone in his pictures

Marriott continued: “We tried to capture the painterly effects of the oil paint using brush strokes especially in the hair, the jacket and scarf using a linear effect whilst focusing on the form, but there are some slight differences if you compare the banknote engraving to the oil painting. For example, we used a traditional banknote engraving approach for Turner’s face using smaller marks within the portrait design to produce a neater, tighter finish.

“When you get your hands on the note, you will be able to see the contrast of these two finishes around his eye.”

They also faced the challenge of capturing Turner’s work: The Fighting Temeraire voted Britain’s greatest painting in a BBC poll in a note which had historically been associated only with the colour purple. 

“We needed to incorporate the purple which is synonymous with the £20 and we did this predominantly within the background image and portrayed the ship in light purple and blue hues to give a ghostly effect as in the painting. We used bright, vivid red, orange and yellows hues to depict the sun setting behind Turner’s shoulder to really bring the art to life. All this had to be done on computer – taking Turner’s art into 21st century,” Marriott explained.

The printing of the new £20 coincided with the introduction of new, advanced printing presses which allowed the bank to incorporate more colours, resulting in the most colourful note yet, fitting for a note which features the artist famous for his quote: “Light is therefore colour.”

The new note is also ground-breaking for other reasons including being the first to feature a character chosen in consultation with the public, who recognised JMW Turner’s contribution to the visual arts and enduring influence.

The new note features:

  • J.M.W. Turner’s self-portrait, painted c. 1799 and currently on display in Tate Britain.
  • Turner’s signature from his Will, the document with which he bequeathed many of his paintings to the nation.
  • The quote “Light is therefore colour”   from an 1818 lecture by Turner referring to his innovative use of light, shade, colour and tone in his pictures.

Turner’s House Trust has been working with the Bank of England to support the issue of the new note this year by organising a programme of events throughout 2020. These include its first  exhibition of Turner’s original work; a Turner Day on June 11th, featuring talks on his life and work, including the painting The Fighting Temeraire; family printmaking workshops creating personalised banknotes, and studying Turner’s self-portrait which appears on the new note. 

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