In 1970 the Bank of England issued a new £20 banknote featuring William Shakespeare. The banknote’s design contained many details which might look familiar to a Shakespeare enthusiast. For example, the portrait of William Shakespeare is based on William Kent’s statue in Westminster Abbey, and the vignette features the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
The Shakespeare banknote was created as the first in a new series, or ‘family,’ of banknotes which each featured a different historical figure. It was the first time that all denominations in a series of banknotes would be connected visually and thematically, in celebrating notable people from British history. Shakespeare was unanimously selected as the first figure to feature on a banknote by the Banknote Design Committee.
However, before settling on a final design, artists drafted many different versions of the banknote. While the issued banknote became a household item, the alternate versions are rarely seen, so let’s take a look and see what the banknote might have looked like.
The Shakespeare banknote was designed by artists and Bank of England employees Harry Eccleston and Roger Withington. Together, they worked for over 6 months consulting reference materials, researching Shakespeare’s plays, and making collages of various designs. They worked in great detail, even studying Tudor clothing to make sure the outfits were correct.
This banknote was the most ambitious design to date, and the artists had lots of possibilities to consider. For example, while the Kent portrait was eventually decided upon, they also tried out the note with a portrait based on an engraving by William Marshall published in 1640.
You might have noticed that in the above drawing, not only is the portrait different but the vignette (to the left of the portrait) shows a scene from Henry V rather than Romeo and Juliet. Many of Shakespeare’s plays were considered for the banknote; take a look at a few of the options they mocked up:
The artists were searching for a scene that was well-known and recognisable. Our collection holds lists from the artists brainstorming plays they might use. Even within one play multiple scenes were considered - along with the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, the artists also considered Romeo and Juliet’s wedding with Friar Lawrence.
Although the back of the banknote has the most obvious references to Shakespeare, the front of the banknote likewise fits the theme. In the roundel to the left of Queen Elizabeth II you can see St George spearing a dragon. This alludes to St George’s Day (23 April), which is also Shakespeare Day, being both his (likely) birthdate and date of death.
Before choosing St George, however, artists drafted a version of the front of banknote which displayed a selection of flowers inspired by those featured in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You might also notice that this mock-up of the banknote features a different portrait of Queen Elizabeth II which was not used in the final version.
Despite the seemingly infinite options considered by the artists, they eventually settled on the well-known design which celebrates England’s greatest bard. Shakespeare remained on the £20 banknote for 21 years, eventually replaced by scientist Michael Faraday in 1991.
If you’ve enjoyed learning about the many different designs for the Shakespeare banknote, come see them for yourself at the Bank of England Museum where they are on display throughout 2023 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio. And to leave you with one final thought: if you were a banknote designer, which scene from Shakespeare’s plays would you choose to put on a banknote?