THE BRITISH NUMISMATIST
Our regular round-up of the academic side of the hobby, including the second part of our guide to Gallic coins, and an intriguing piece of 18th-century satire
Signed by a hangman and featuring grim illustrations reflecting the harsh punishment for forging money at the time, this Bank Restriction Note is a wonderful example of 18th-century satire, as Richard Kelleher of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, explains
In 1819 William Hone published what was among the earliest pieces of ‘money art’ in Britain. Its creator was the cartoonist George Cruickshank (1792-1878), whose illustrations in Charles Dickens’ works reached a global audience. The print took the form of a Bank of England note but almost every detail of the composition was altered to create a powerful visual image that conveyed Cruickshank’s opposition to the penalties imposed on those caught passing forged bank notes. This example in the Fitzwilliam Museum collection was acquired thanks to an Art Fund grant and is part of a collecting project exploring money of conflict and dissent from 1750 to the present day.
Background and context
The late 18th century is considered the golden age of satire in Britain. It was a period in which prints by the great political artists of the time, such as James Gillray (1756/7-1815), Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), and George Cruikshank (1792-1878) delighted audiences with their barbed caricatures of George III, the Prime Minister William Pitt, or French Revolutionaries. Cruickshank wrote that his activism against the punishment for forgers was inspired when he saw the grim scene of two women hanged near the
Old Bailey in London. Their crime had been ‘uttering’ or passing forged £1 notes.
The penalties for counterfeiting were always harsh and often involved capital punishment.
Cruickshank’s title for the piece ‘the Bank Restriction Note’ references an important change in the money supply which took place in 1797. War with Revolutionary France in the late 18th century placed a huge financial burden on the British government and led to runs on the banks. In an approach that was novel at the time Parliament introduced the Bank Restriction Act. The act suspended the convertibility of paper notes for gold in order to keep the precious metal in the banks and available for war finance. For the first time an abundance of paper notes were printed in low denominations of £1 and £2 which led to a greater proportion of the population using them for a wider range of goods and services. For some, this was their first experience of
using paper money. This relative unfamiliarity with paper money combined with the fact that they could be so easily forged led many to fall foul of the law, often unwittingly. Using or possessing fraudulent notes could be fatal.
The ‘note’ was printed on thin bank post paper. Every element in the note’s composition is intentional and makes a specific point; these reward careful attention. The title in the left margin reads ‘Specimen of a Bank Note – not to be imitated. Submitted to the consideration of the Bank Directors and the inspection of the Public’. The zigzagged leg shackles, and the ships in the background, show the fate of forgers who were transported to penal colonies. In the vignette on the left sits a Britannia figure (the emblem of the Bank) devouring children. This is thought to be a metaphor that compared state execution by hanging to cannibalism. Below this the pound sign has become a hangman’s rope which twirls around the black sum block, which would normally state the value of the note in white Gothic letters, but instead carries instead portraits of those executed. To the right, where the value of the note would normally sit, is a long beam from which the bodies of three women and eight men hang. Finally, the signature on the note reads Jack Ketch, the traditional name of the hangman. Executions for forgery continued until the death penalty was abolished by a series of acts from 1830 to 1837. Cruickshank claimed his note played a part in changing the law.