The next big row

Move over! The soon to be replaced picture of economist Adam Smith on the £20 note

Move over! The soon to be replaced picture of economist Adam Smith on the £20 note

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the pool of democracy, what with both the Prime Minister and the British National Bird chosen via popular mandate, here we go again. This time, the question is about whose face will be on the new £20 note. Rather thrillingly, it has been decreed that the successor to Adam Smith must be an artist. And we, the public can join in the game. What larks! I predict the most enormous row will erupt, not least because the argument over the person replacing Darwin on the British tenner, which ensued in death threats and harassment for anyone who thought a woman could do the job (it is indeed going to be Jane Austen), has only just calmed down. The question of who is represented on our paper money is clearly something of a prickly subject, and as the £20 is still a note to command respect in your wallet, this is a big one.

At this point it is instructive to remind you of the rules. Annoyingly, the chosen artist must be dead, presumably to stop him or her walking around thinking they are monumentally rich. This is rather tiresome, since it rules out obvious incendiary figures such as Tracey Emin, who would actually be rather fitting since she was once  memorably photographed attempting to stuff a whole bunch of bank notes into her vagina. Danny Boyle, Vivienne Westwood, Steve McQueen and Damien Hirst are also be ineligible,  as is Grayson Perry, who would surely defuse the entire gender argument by appearing on the front of the note in a giant frilly frock and wig.

Secondly, the artist must be British, which is nonsensical, since great art is surely above nationality and is thus a universal treasure for all to consume. Indeed, I think the perfect person to have his face on a banknote would be Pablo Picasso, given his continued ability to make millions in the art room. Andy Warhol would also be rather amusant. As he was one of the first artists to actually consider a mechanically reproduced bank note to be a work of art, and framed them a number of times,  his face on millions of actual notes would be a rather brilliant piece of circular arty wit. Still, as the Bank of England is probably not given to making jokes, arty or not, we should probably discount this area. Plus, he was Polish.

British artists whose names are already in the frame include LS Lowry, whom William Hill has named as the (rather dull) favourite, while Ladbrokes has cited Hogarth and Richard Attenborough as joint favourites. Darling Dicky? De mortis nil nisi bonum, and all that, but really? Above Hitchcock, Lean or Schlesinger? You see? Forget about all these after dinner arguments about the merits of puffin over wren, and what about the hen harrier?  I foresee a summer crammed with spirited debate concerning Hogarth vs Gainsborough, and what about Carol Reed? Banners outside the National Gallery? Placards beside the BFI?

Naturally the Female Problem, if one can (and indeed should) call it that, will accompany the entire debate, if not overshadow it completely, thanks to the idiot trolls who dogged the Austen campaign last year. The main problem about picking a female artist to go on a bank note is that there are not very many women who were represented in the world of the visual arts pre 1900, (and who are therefore definitely dead), to contend with. And since we are keeping it strictly within these shores, we are obliged to discount the Mary Cassatt/Berthe Morisot Impressionist double act from Paris, American photographer Dorothea Lange, or the likes of Tamara de Lempicka (also Polish). So, anyone demanding a woman on the front will basically be facing a toss-up between Barbara Hepworth, Elizabeth Frink and the ceramicist Clarice Cliff, with perhaps Glaswegian artist Margaret Mackintosh, wife to Charles Rennie, as a surprise outside runner. All of whom would be great on the banknote.

My own particular choice? If nationality were not a bar, I would cite Sonia Delaunay, currently the star of her own retrospective in Tate Modern. Painter, designer, graphic artist, sculptor and ceramicist, she was an unstoppable fount of art and creativity throughout her long life. She anticipated everyone from Warhol to Craig Martin, an artist who stamped her vision on dresses, paintings, carpets, furniture and material, escaping two World Wars and triumphing in the most challenging of circumstances. She even found time to have a child.

But given the confinement of the remit, my vote to front the £20 would be an artist who crossed the divide between popular and high brow, a textile designer, publisher, painter and also an activist who also pointed out the social problems which arise when a few people command power over all the £20 notes, and quite a few others do not. I give you William Morris.

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