A noteworthy artist: Harry Norman Eccleston

Harry Norman Eccleston is the man behind the modern British banknote.

The Midlands printmaker and RBSA Honorary Member was the first full-time artist and designer for the Bank of England. He is responsible for placing important British figures, including the Queen, firmly on our currency.

In 1970, Eccleston’s Shakespeare marked a departure from the Royals by featuring the Bard with Romeo and Juliet on a twenty pound note. This year, Jane Austen became the latest figure to grace our legal tender.


Harry Eccleston at work.

Isabella Frostick, Archive Volunteer, shines a light on her research into Eccleston…

I first came across Eccleston while researching specific works for a print exhibition, Baker to Bartlett: The Changing Face of RBSA Printmaking.

Looking at Eccleston’s wider body of work it becomes apparent just how skilled and accomplished he was, not only in personal achievement but also in his often unrecognised contribution to everyday life in England today.

He produced a large output of work ranging in genre but collectively demonstrating his development as a printmaker.

Born in Coseley in the West Midlands, Eccleston was inspired from a young age by the industrial landscapes of the Black Country, which began a life-long desire to capture this environment in his art.

At only twelve years old Eccleston enrolled at the Bilston School of Art as a part-time student.

During World War II he joined the Royal Navy; however he resumed his art education at the Birmingham School of Art. He later won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London.

Eccleston went on to live in the City; however his output and subjects of his later work still reflected a fondness for his native industrial roots.

Eccleston made his great contribution to society by producing the first series of fully pictorial bank notes.

This was initially a surprise to uncover, however I think it is a wonderful achievement to recognise in an honorary member of the RBSA.

In 1958, at the age of thirty-five, Eccleston became the first full-time artist and designer to be hired by the Bank of England. He maintained this post until his retirement from the bank in 1983.

Through this employment he became an honorary member of the RBSA and was elected a member of the Royal West of England Academy.

He also received an OBE in 1979 for his services to banknote design and printmaking, which continue to be acknowledged today.

His £20 banknote depicting Shakespeare, accompanied by the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, is one of the most notable and aesthetically complex notes made during his employment. The note is currently on display at the Bank of England Museum.

The RBSA is very lucky to house six artworks by Eccleston in its Collection. Predominantly these works portray industrial scenes of furnaces and steel works from Eccleston’s memories and observations.

Stratford Variations No.1 (1981) portrays a rhythmic and linear observation of an everyday object; the train cables overhead Stratford Station in London.

86. Harry Norman Eccleston. Stratford Variations No. 1

© RBSA. Photograph by James White.

By Isabella Frostick, Undergraduate Archive Team Volunteer

The Wolverhampton Art Gallery hosted an exhibition on the work and life of Harry Eccleston in 2012 entitled Man of Note: http://www.wolverhamptonart.org.uk/whats-on/man-of-note/

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