In Brief

J.M.W. Turner to Light Up the British £20 Note

Concept for the J. M. W. Turner banknote (via Bank of England/Flickr)
Concept for the J. M. W. Turner banknote (via Bank of England/Flickr)

J.M.W. Turner, the great English landscape painter who obsessed over light, will be featured on the new £20 banknote in the UK. The Bank of England made the announcement last week; the selection follows last year’s public call for nominations of deceased British artists.

J. M. W. Turner, "Self-portrait" (1799), oil on canvas (via Tate Britain/Wikimedia)
J. M. W. Turner, “Self-portrait” (1799), oil on canvas (via Tate Britain/Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

While not quite as thrilling as indigenous genocide leader Andrew Jackson’s recent displacement from the front of the American $20 by Harriet Tubman, Turner’s appearance on the bill is a significant milestone for recognizing cultural figures on currency. Hannah Ellis-Petersen reported for the Guardian that Turner is the first artist to be immortalized on a British banknote.

Arguably, that’s not entirely true, if you count the architect Christopher Wren, who first appeared on the £50 note in 1981, but Turner is definitely the first visual artist. The Bank of England has featured historic figures on its banknotes since 1970, although the opening up of the process to public nominations was only recently initiated. Along with Turner, Sir Winston Churchill will be added to the next £5 banknote, and Jane Austen to the next £10 banknote.

J. M. W. Turner, "The Fighting Temeraire" (1839) (via National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia)
J. M. W. Turner, “The Fighting Temeraire” (1839) (via National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia)

Don’t get too excited to throw down Turners for your tea, though — the banknote isn’t planned for release until 2020. In the concept design, a young Turner in his 20s gazes out with a challenging, piercing stare, an image borrowed from his 1799 self-portrait (the forward pose, by some accounts, intended to disguise his rather large nose). In the background, replacing the dark setting of the self-portrait, is a glimpse of the ship and sunset in his 1839 painting “The Fighting Temeraire.” At the bottom is a signature taken from Turner’s will, with a quote — “Light is therefore colour” — from an 1818 lecture. It was that ongoing interest in light which made him not only a significant Romantic landscape painter, but also an inspiration to the Impressionists who followed and the modernism that was born from their work.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney explained in a release that Turner was selected because he “is perhaps the single most influential British artist of all time.” In a video from the bank below, you can hear more about the selection process, including mention of the contenders who weren’t picked this round, such as Jane DrewJosiah Wedgwood, Barbara Hepworth, William Hogarth, and Alfred Hitchcock.

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