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Draw me a banknote!

Nowadays, it is the design that makes up the best part of our paper money. But what exactly is hidden behind the design of banknotes? On the basis of what criteria were artists or graphic designers selected and what did their work involve? Let’s try and find some answers to these questions in this Object of the Month…

Originally, it was the writing that took up more space than the design on the banknote. In Belgium, it was not until the banknote series produced in 1869 that a change was observed on this front. And it was also from this series onwards that banknotes featured an original reverse side, distinct from the illustrations on the front. That goes a long way towards explaining why it was decided at the time of this same series to split up the job of designing a banknote. From then on, the design and then the engraving of patterns on wood, steel or copper plates would be carried out by two different people.

These banknotes were designed by the historical painter Henri Hendrickx, Director of the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode Academy. Even though there is no standard profile of the banknote designer, it is nevertheless worth noting that banks have often turned to painters, engaged as art teachers by various institutions. The drawing of banknotes was also entrusted to artists from whom various works had been commissioned for the governing authorities. Hendrickx, for instance, had also designed the floats for Ommegang and the triumphal arches for the city of Brussels.

Obverse of the 100-franc note from an 1869 series © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium [1]

Obverse of the 100-franc note from an 1869 series © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

It was the National Bank that specified the theme to be developed for each new series. Artists therefore had very limited scope to use their own imagination. They first of all came up with a preliminary draft which was then scrutinised by a special commission. A second proof, taking account of the comments that had been made at the first stage, was then mocked up. This version was further refined before it was considered to be final.

From a practical point of view, artists designed the model of the banknote on a much larger scale than the real-life note itself. The models were made on thick paper or cardboard, depending on the techniques used. The draft note was then sketched by pencil, painted using watercolour, oil-based paint, ink or even gouache. By contrast, the engraver worked to scale.

From the end of the 19th century, the banks slowly started to set up contests, either open to anyone or, in some cases restricted to a few chosen artist and designers. For instance, in 1894, the National Bank of Belgium asked painters and illustrators Adolphe Crespin, Herman Richir and Louis Titz to come up with early drafts. The contest was won by Titz. He followed a classic theme, but his interpretation was not lacking in imagination. The decorative motifs that run across the back of the note are evidence enough.

Back of the 20-franc note from a 1894 series © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium [2]

Back of the 20-franc note from a 1894 series © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

In the absence of any selection contest, the choice of artist was one of the Governor’s prerogatives. This is what happened with Ghent-born painter Constant Montald who was chosen by Governor Victor Van Hoegaerden to design several banknote series from 1898 onwards. Although the archives do not reveal anything about the reasons behind the choice of artist, there are nevertheless a few coincidences. The Governor’s ties with the city of Ghent in fact dated right back to his early childhood. Consequently, Montald, who had already won the Prix de Rome in 1886 and been appointed as an instructor at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts in 1896, got official recognition that did not go unnoticed by the Governor of the National Bank.

During the inter-war period, a new type of specialist in banknote design appeared on the scene, namely the graphic designer, someone with the distinctive ability to combine aesthetic sensitivity with the incorporation of communication functions and the technical constraints of the banknote.

Various features effectively have to be taken into consideration when a banknote is being designed. So, on top of the subject matter that may be set by the authorities or the central bank, the end result is influenced by the format for paper money, the banknote denomination’s place in a series or the many different elements that have to be incorporated for legal or security reasons. From the actual design point of view, it is therefore a question of striking a balance between the quest for finely detailed motifs, that are harder to forge, and deliberately simpler and clearer designs.

The sheer complexity of banknotes and the growing number of banknote security-related constraints posed a major threat to the graphic designers’ creativeness. While in the case of banknotes put into circulation between 1978 and 1982, various external designers continued to be commissioned by the National Bank of Belgium, for the last series of Belgian franc notes, issued between 1994 and 1997, the Bank entrusted the production work to its own team of specialised graphic designers.

Obverse of the Magritte series 500-franc note © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium [3]

Obverse of the Magritte series 500-franc note © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

The design for the first series of euro banknotes was chosen from the results of a competition held under two themes: ‘ages and architectural styles of Europe’ and ‘abstract/modern design’. The proposed designs had to create a sense of unity across the whole series of seven banknotes and also be attractive enough to the public to be accepted throughout the euro area. Resistance to counterfeiting was still the main factor that had to be taken into consideration. The graphic designers had been selected by the central banks of the European Union (except for Denmark’s), with each central bank being able to name up to three graphic designers. As no rules had been laid down on this subject, some of them hand-painted or drew their model while others produced computer-generated designs. In the end, it was the Austrian Robert Kalina who won the competition, as his designs under the ‘ages and architectural styles of Europe’ category were considered to be the most consistent and most representative of the Old Continent.

The same principle of holding a competition was used for the latest euro banknote series. This time, it was a German designer called Reinhold Gerstetter who won the contest. He produced the banknote design on a computer using a software program. The National Bank of Belgium then had the job of transforming the design for the 5-euro note into a printable banknote. For that, it had to take account of the different security features as well as specific production stages and their limitations. Last but not least, in the case of the 10-euro note that has been in circulation since September this year, it was a private printing works that the European Central Bank called on when it got to this key stage in the production process.

Obverse of the 10-euro note from the Europa series © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium [4]

Obverse of the 10-euro note from the Europa series © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Stéfane Antoine
Museum guide