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?

About the Author: Mara Blackwood

Mara Blackwood is the executive editor of RedDotBlog


  1. J M W Turner has always been one of my favorite painters of color and light. His use of color was unique and opened the way for Impressionism and Fauvism. Art today would have been impossible without him. His painting glow with light and emotion.

  2. I think it’s a great idea to put artists on banknotes. I was so impressed that the French franc had composers, writers and artists on it’s banknotes; it truly showed what was of value to the French. Wish it would happen in North America where we have to struggle to even have a woman on a banknote . . .

  3. As a young woman I visited Amsterdam and was thrilled with their lovely notes (sorry can’t recall the denomination) that featured Van Gogh’s sunflowers in brilliant yellow. For that reason I was sad when the local currency was supplanted by the Euro. It is so much more likely for European nations to place artists on the same plane as political or war heroes. Art is awarded a much more central place in everyday life.

  4. I think a Wright Bros. bill would be appropriate, as well as an O’Keefe and perhaps an Aretha Franklin bill as well – or some composition of “Motown”…what an amazing and appropriate celebration of the arts and innovation there could be! Oh the possibilities….

  5. I think it’s brilliant! We use to have a £1 note with Isaac Newton and £10 with Florence Nightengale, the founder of modern nursing.
    It’s about time Turner is the next new man to be seen on our £20 note! Artist should be taken seriously as they help people see and understand the world we live in, and that includes helping the scientist and mathematicians!

  6. I think is is appropriate. Turner marched to the beat of his own drum. Even in the end he held true to what he believed to be pure artistic expression. When offered a fortune to sell and move the work to another country, he decided he would turn down the offer and keep his series of works in Great Britain.

  7. Celebrating the creative arts might bring America together again. The selection committees would have a difficult time. . But if they rotated regularly so more great artists could be honored, it would work. Like the quarters celebrating the 50 states.

  8. Who to pick, who to pick? Norman Rockwell is so “Americana”; Robert Wood is so prolific (both in number of paintings and volume of print runs) that practically every home has his prints (even if they don’t realize it); Bob Ross probably started more artists than anyone can count, and he’s STILL showing on PBS; and Fredrick Remington best captured what’s probably the most distinctively American region of the most distinctively American period of time. Of course, Grant Wood created the singular Americana work, but since he’s only a one-painting wonder to the average American, I’m not sure he makes the cut–and I really don’t want pitchfork farmers on my money.

    1. What is your impression of farmers? I can tell you mine from 50 years of first-hand experience. They work 365 days a year, literally. They work on Christmas, on weekends, and when someone in the family is giving birth or dying. The herds have to be fed and milked regardless of what is happening. They work in blizzards, wind storms, in the blazing heat, and the freezing cold. They fix fence, fix tractors, install solar water pumps, build their own barns, and can fix and use any heavy implement with efficiency. They steward the land, feed the farm animals, and can make it through any situation feast or famine. They helped build this land and put food on our tables. They help steer legislation. They know how to do math and keep books. They midwife their animals and doctor them. They solve complex problems on the fly, are tough as nails, they value their neighbors and community, they are the first ones to help their neighbors and have honest values and are the epitome of what it means to work and to be an American. You can put a pitchfork farmer on my money any day over any politician at any time. Grant Wood would be an outstanding choice and would bring more of his excellent work into the lime light. Thank you for your consideration in discussing Grant Wood and the pitchfork farmer.

  9. Cheers to the Brits! And so you know Mexico has had Diego Rivera on one side of the $500 pesos bill, with Frida Kahlo on the other side of it, since 2010.

    It is a very good thing that other countries are finally catching up. How long before the US features an artist?

    PS: I love Turner and I’m so happy for the UK.

  10. The United States Postal service has issued numerous stamps featuring American and other visual artists as well as art of American an other visual artists. Stamps seem a nice way to honor artist and art. It’s not money but still a public acknowledgment of visual artists contribution to society.

  11. Great idea to put an artist on a bill. It would definitely make a difference in how people view artists. Good for England to recognize Turner, certainly one of my favorite artist. I remember seeing one of his original paintings. I was so awed I just stood there with my mouth open trying to take in the colors and his wonderful use of light.

  12. Acclaim in the form of currency depiction is largely symbolic. Bravo for Turner, Van Gogh and any other artists that made the cut. It is easier to judge generals, scientists, or historians … their accomplishments are measurable, to a degree. It isn’t hard to find someone of merit. But artists? The yardstick depends on criteria. Historical impact? Changed the genre? Originality or innovation? The decision is often by committee and we all have our favorites.
    Placing a woman on currency here in the US is a trivial gesture, and even then it has become a cultural/political debate. I’d much rather women artists be compensated comparable to men … not in my lifetime. Neither male nor female artists have the respect their dedication should command.
    Recognition is a peculiar thing. It usually comes long after relevance or need.

  13. This is beautiful, and the UK has been several strides ahead of us in honoring great contributors on the common currency. I am so enthused about Tubman becoming among the first in this shift, and in this social experiment. Her contribution should be highly honored, and finally it is becoming so…even if it is on a bill whose frequency in the purse, and pocket of those in its pursuance might find themselves in situations that can be equated to enslavement, this will become a portion of our culture that cannot be easily ignored, and is most certainly a phenomenon to carefully watch as it unfolds.

  14. Totally agree and I cannot wait to have one of those with one of my favorite artists face. Regarding your lines on money vs artist, I must add that Turner was very much into business and marketing, as a matter of fact, he came with the idea of having his own “gallery” and went for it. This was something very much ahead of his time too. I understand the point behind the choice on US dollars bill though, a younger nation taking pride on its political point of view. In my country, we have a mixture: political, nobel prize and humanities characters together with native “flora and fauna”.
    On a brighter side, Tate Modern is opening a fantastic exhibition on Georgia O’Keefe!

  15. I think it’s a great idea. And actually, we did have an artist on our money, at least for a while. A Grant Wood image and his name were on the Iowa state quarter.

  16. Imagine if visual artists were eulogized as our sports figures are…. “Painter completes series of still life paintings!” Ah, to dream……

  17. John Singer Sargent is a good recommendation, maybe with John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French sharing the bill!

  18. Big turner exhibit at Dallas Museum of Art and it was AWESOME! I had no idea just from art books. SEEING THEM turned me into a TURNER FAN! This is wonderful!

  19. In the summer of 1976 I went to Europe for the first time. I was about to graduate with a degree in Art History and wanted to see the masterpieces that I had been studying in person. One of my greatest joys was seeing the Turners in the Tate in London. Photographs do not do justice to the his subtle colors and amazing brushwork. Those paintings took my breath away. Bravo to the UK for recognizing Turner’s genius and contribution to the art world. If I had to vote for an American artist on US currency, I’d have to choose Edward Hopper. His paintings of American places and people are sublime.

  20. The genius ‘Painter of Light’ JMW Turner is a brilliant choice, and as I informed the Bank of England, I have links to the artist and I also have an ancestor who is the son of a draftsman called Sir Percivall Pott, Queen Victoria’s surgeon who lived at the site of the Bank of England at Threadneedle Street. Our relative, Miss Constance Pott, the pioneering graphic designer and etcher produced a picture titled New Bank of England. There is much more family history in the book TURNER TREES – link to Facebook page can be found below:

    Yours Faithfully,
    Keith Pott Turner

  21. The ship featured alongside JMW Turner is actually the ‘Temeraire’ not the fighting Boaty Mcboatface, for those who want a female artist, they should nominate a Miss Constance Pott the graphic designer and etcher who created a picture of the New Bank of England, I am linked to both of these brilliant artists and so might you be if you read the book ‘Turner Trees’ so spend your £20 wisely on some interesting family history.

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