JMW Turner on the £20 Note | Artists as National Heroes

Last week, the Bank of England announced that, starting in 2020, famed British Landscape painter JMW Turner will be featured on the £20 note. This article from NPR explains the process they went through to choose Turner. The bank decided that they wanted a visual artist to be the figure on the note, then, through a “national nomination process,” 590 artists were recommended by the public. According to a video by the Bank of England, a committee studied the various artists in depth before coming to a decision. Because of his unsurpassed influence on British and European art as a whole, Turner emerged as the perfect choice.

Credit: Independent

Credit: Independent

Having recently visited the expansive Turner collection at the Tate Britain, I fully understand why England is so proud of the early nineteenth-century painter. Turner’s work overflows with artistic genius and was revolutionary in his time. As a citizen of the United States, however, it’s hard to fathom a country being so proud of a visual artist that they would put his face on their money. In fact, who thinks about artists and money going together at all?

In the United States, we tend to take a lot of pride in political figures and activists, but we don’t seem to focus nearly as much on people who have made a difference in other areas of our culture. What if instead of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson (soon to be Tubman), Grant, and Franklin, American bills featured different kinds of national heroes? If  national heroes are people whose achievements have contributed greatly to the society of the country they live in, there are definitely American artists that “fit the bill.”

Working Title/Artist: Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, In Black Coat with Hands to Neck Department: Photographs Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, DT2641.tif touched by film and media (jnc) 9_29_08

Georgia O’Keefe Credit: The Met Museum

So many incredible visual artists have originated in the United States, many of whom are well-known names in the art world, including Georgia O’Keefe, John Singer Sargent, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol, to name a few. Imagine seeing the face of one of these artists on the $100 bill. How empowering would that be for people who want to make a difference in the world through creativity? Maybe fewer parents would tell their children they could grow up to be president, and more would encourage their children’s creative pursuits.

Personally, I applaud England for celebrating more than one kind of national hero, and I will look forward to paying for dinner with a JMW Turner £20 note next time I visit.

What do You Think?

What do you think of the Bank of England’s decision to put JMW Turner on the £20 note? If you were to nominate a visual artist from your country to be on your currency, who would it be, and why?

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