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It's a bum note

Will Gompertz | 17:56 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Prof Jeremy Dibble of Durham University's music department is upset by the removal, as from tomorrow, of the £20 banknote that bears the image of the composer Sir Edward Elgar.

A £20 noteHe says it reflects the low standing of the arts in this county. Does it? Why? There are only four denominations of note to choose from: £5, £10, £20 and £50, with the £20 accounting for 60% of all notes in circulation.

Elgar's mustachioed mug has been adding value to our £20 notes since 1999; before that it was Shakespeare who did the honours from 1970, when the concept of having a "celebrity" on the banknote was first introduced. So you could argue the arts have hogged the £20 banknote for 40 years.

In fact, there was a time in the early 1990s when the arts were represented on three of the four notes: Dickens on the £10, Shakespeare on the £20 and Wren on the £50. They were spared the ignominy of the fiver. Mind you, if they want a quick return to the fold, this is the note that is likely to be next available.

Given this run, it doesn't seem unreasonable to let some other sides of British life a bit of a go and makes accusing the Bank of England of philistinism seem a touch harsh. Philosophy, sport and religion have yet to have a look in.

The Bank of England's website covers the subject well, but some questions remained unanswered until I phoned them.

Q: How often do you change the portrait on a banknote?
A: Every 7-10 years on average, although some have been for as long as 20-plus years.

Q: What are the criteria?
A: Someone who has made an outstanding contribution to British life.

Q: So do they have to be British?
A: No.

Q: Any other criteria?
A: That they have stood the test of time.

Q: Oh. So do they have to be dead?
A: No.

Q: Who chooses the person to go on the banknote?
A: The Governor of the Bank of England.

Suggested names for banknote portraitsQ: Is the next available note going to have an arts face on it?
A: I don't know - I'm not the Governor. But you can look at our website for a list of suggested names [82.92KB PDF].

I did. It made interesting reading. It's hardly representative of multi-cultural Britain - and have a look at some of the suggestions from more recent times. Those who are hoping for a portrait of someone from the world of music should perhaps be careful what they wish for.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think that the the portraits should alternate between male and female faces. The person chosen should be British, thoroughly vetted, dead or past the age when scandal could besmirch them whilst representing their country.

    Seriously, my personal choice would be Alan Turing. He made an enormous contribution to our success in winning the second world war. His untimely death resulting from the terrible, unjust treatment he received from the nation he helped to protect during those difficult times would in my mind be justification for my choice.

  • Comment number 2.

    Definitely heard the sound of a barrel bottom being scraped towards the end there. Personally I'm disappointed not to see Brian Sewell listed.

  • Comment number 3.

    Just a thought, if they could put poet, William Henry Davies - ''What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare'' etc. - on one it really could be ''a bum note''. Alas, he didn't even make the list.

  • Comment number 4.

    Why do we have to keep changing our notes and coins anyway??!!

    The Euro has remained unchanged since it's inception, and the US rarely changes the Dollar bills as far as I can recall - perhaps I'm wrong.

    The more they mess around with the notes (usually in the name of "security" - which we all know is "paramount") the more sterling looks like a mickey mouse currency.

  • Comment number 5.

    Q: Who chooses the person to go on the banknote?
    A: The Governor of the Bank of England.

    The purpose of the images on the banknote is at least twofold. First it is part of the ant-fake agenda and second a little bit of a jingoistic rant.

    It is I think irrelevant to seek an image considered to be 'arty' by the arty establishment for the very good reason that this establishment is an unrepresentative largely self appointing and appointed clique.

    I do not really understand why the jingoistic image could not just as well be an image that represents something British - cricket, Big Ben, the Forth Bridges, the Albert Bridge etc. Why do we always need to have an individual's image?

    Why should the Governor pick the image? That is really the biggest issue and something that we should be able to do something about! What is it that gives him the right! The answer is we do and we should take it away from him!

    I'd go along with Alan Turing (see #1 above), or Tommy Flowers. What about Watson and Crick (of DNA fame)? The Bank of England's list looks rather weird and certainly many of the newer names would be unacceptable. The fact that several of the names that appear on the list are there at all is somehow deeply shocking and almost offensive and really does show how idiotically banal we have become as a Nation.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'd also support Turing's inclusion on the list (or better, on the note), and agree about the banality of some of the more recent names on the list - after the shameful performance in South Africa we certainly don't want a footballer!

  • Comment number 7.

    No way does the British currency need to be defaced by a celeb, like, innit? If contribution is the main criterion then the list is huge and those responsible deserve recognition - like inventors of the jet engine, penicillin, TV, telephone, electricity - there's lots to choose from without sinking to the depths of small minds known only to a minority or the media.

  • Comment number 8.

    If anyone decideds to add Beckham on the notes then I would refuce those ones... They're for someone sensible!!!

  • Comment number 9.

    "Someone who has made an outstanding contribution to British life."

    It's hard to imagine sports players fulfilling this condition. Before Michael Vaughan, the only sportsperson nominated was Harry Clasper, and this is likely to be more for his innovations in boatbuilding than his sporting achievements. Evem WG Grace and Stanley Matthews haven't made the list, so Vaughan, Beckham and Wilkinson are rather out of place.

    Musicians are certainly worth including if they've made particular contributions to their genre of music, but it's hard to see how Robbie Williams fits in. Even Mick Jagger is questionable. Meantime genuine innovators such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd are left off the list.

    Worst of all, the nomination of the Queen Mother, Prince Philip and Princess Diana simply due to their being "members of the Royal Family" is utterly crass. No other royal family members throughout history are included unless they've made some particular contribution to the country, so why them?

  • Comment number 10.

    ian-russell wrote:
    " Personally I'm disappointed not to see Brian Sewell listed."

    Yes, let's have someone who actually boasts about the fact that he has no concept of mathematics on one of our bank notes.

    As someone has mentioned 'Alan Turing' would be the ideal choice as his work has helped to shape our society in ways few other people have been able to do recently...and was betrayed by the backwards views of the establishment.

  • Comment number 11.


    and i don't mean the dog.

    or a previous PM, the US has previous presidents, why can't we do something similar?

  • Comment number 12.

    I think of no better citizen then David Beckham. So "Yes please"!

  • Comment number 13.

    Absolutely NOT NOT NOT!!!!! Who's daft idea was that? Makes me shudder.

  • Comment number 14.

    Why does it have to be representive of 'multicultural britain'?
    Britain is hardly multicultural anyway. Look at the demographic figures,
    barely 15% of the whole population of Britain is ethnic minoritys.
    People have been led to belive we live in a large 'multicultual ' society so minoritys can have what they want and politicians ( Labour) look like heros to these immigrants/ cultures.
    Im not racist I can just see through the brainwash. Why do we need to be multicultural- we dont, and it will cause many more problems then it prevents. How is a country that is 85% indegenous white multicultural?
    It isnt, so please BBC stop telling us we are in one. British Brainwashing Corporation

  • Comment number 15.

    The faces of UK monarchs past and present should be on UK currency. Pop culture should have no part in it at all

  • Comment number 16.

    Why have famous people, why not have engravings that represent modern Britain? How about a scene showing a crowd of hooded youths terrorising a housing estate, or the image of a factory being demolished, or a view of an empty shop on any major high street. These would be far more relevant symbols of Britain for the majority of people than are many of the proposed candidates. Or, why not be arty and represent the contribution which politicians of this generation have made to improving the quality of life in the UK by leaving a big blank space?

  • Comment number 17.

    Alan Turing

  • Comment number 18.

    It appears to be that the names at the end of the list are included only to pander to the Tabloid readers and have not contributed anything of any value to the country.


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