On St Valentine's day 1966 Australia adopted decimal currency with new notes and coins, in dollars and cents to replace pounds, shillings, and pence. The five new notes, designed by Gordon Andrews, are arguably the finest of Australian graphic design.
When prime minister Robert Menzies decided to introduce decimal currency in 1963, the artist Russell Drysdale, an art advisory board member, crucially suggested a designer would be more appropriate than an artist, as preferred by the PM. Seven designers were selected, three demurred and became advisers, and during a lengthy briefing overseen by the redoubtable governor of the Reserve Bank Dr ‘Nugget’ Coombs, the remaining designers were given detailed instructions about engravers, photo technicians and ink printers who would be involved in the production.
Names for the notes included the Austral, the Royal (favoured by monarchist Menzies) and the eventual winner: the dollar. The competition was won by a well-established Sydney industrial designer Gordon Andrews, who had described his entry as bold and colourful notes, which the advisers saw as being capable of being developed into distinctive, but hard-to-forge currency notes.
The Reserve Bank had two requirements that would strongly influence Andrews approach to the new notes. Firstly, they asked that the new background colours should reflect the old notes, and secondly that each note should include two portraits of famous Australians, one on each side.
The colours were a crucial starting point for Andrews, who saw the existing as insipid and drab and Australia would be better represented with something stronger and brighter. Andrews thought the US ‘greenback’ were unimpressive and looked to the newer designs of Europe, all the while with an eye on what would be boldly, uniquely Australian.
The design process was laborious with detailed hand drawings and traditional etching techniques required long before computers were in evidence. The resulting notes are beautiful, and bear sustained scrutiny, as they are redolent with ideas, many intentional by the designer, and some deeply in tune with the Zeit Geist of Australian nationalism emerging in the 1960’s.
The $1 note needed to be brown, and in the hands of Andrews it represented McKellar’s ‘wide brown land’, the parched dry continent in times of drought, as well as the ochre of Aboriginal painting. Entirely appropriate for the idea of European settlement on one side and Aboriginality with equal prominence on the other side. Equality never achieved in reality.
Featuring the Queen on one side of the $1 note was a requirement by the Reserve Bank, along with the Australian coat of arms. Andrews struggled to make the Queen fit into the note, feeling it was overly shadowed. Moreover, he had great difficulty trying to make the kangaroo as muscular and strong as one of the advisers, Hal Missingham, had wanted. He was dispatched to the zoo, along with photographer David Moore, to document their scale; and their magnificent strength is obviously evident in the final etching.
It's an odd pairing on the face of it: the Queen floating with her regalia, seemingly interloping on the note, which would have been far more successful graphically without her; just a coat of arms in black, brown and yellow. But a republic was not even on the horizon.
The obverse is a tour de force that indicates the deep creativity in these notes. It was Andrews’ initiative to use Aboriginal art as the basis for the design. He has said “I hoped to celebrate their culture through something all citizens would handle and come to understand and respect. The idea back in 1964 was unlikely to be accepted by the bank, but I knew I would have an ally in the Governor, Dr Coombs”.
Through Hal Missingham he found a set of photographic prints made by Max Dupain of the Karal Kupka collection of bark paintings from Arnhem land. The main representation was from a painting by Malangi, an artist then unknown outside his community. He was paid a reproduction fee of $1000, risible then as now.
Andrews talked about the care that was taken to reproduce the quality of the bark painting in the engraving taken from the various reproductions, nevertheless the use of Aboriginal art was one of the key criticisms made about the notes at their release.
Given the colour green required for the $2 note, Andrews chose the portraits of two farmers, the wealth of the nation still being reliant on sheep and wheat. John MacArthur is shown together with a woolly ram just prior to being shorn. On the other side is William Farrah with sheafs of wheat.
The bright green of cultivated grass gives way in the centre to the yellow and of the sun-drenched and parched grass of an Australian summer. The $2 note has the simplest graphics and layouts of the notes, with strong portraits of sturdy men of their time, MacArthur in a neckerchief and Farrah with a modern tie.
The $10 note is blue is predominantly blue, with a yellow band through the centre, common to all the notes. On the face is Francis Greenway, the convict architect who became a favourite of Governor Macquarie, a designer of churches and civic buildings, many of which are illustrated here in elevations of arches, spires and tympanums.
The irony is that Greenway was convicted and sent to the colonies for seven years for forgery. How did Andrews steer a convicted forger onto the currency notes? Pure larrikin.
Henry Lawson is on the obverse, the only name indicated by signature rather than print. He is seen in profile, looking out over his writings in his own hand, and gold rush buildings of Gulgong and Hill End. The etchings are based on the Holtermann collection of photographs, published as ‘Gold and Silver’; gold for what they were digging for, and silver for the medium on the photographic plates.
Among the recognizable buildings from the collection is the Times Bakery, and it was the poor quality of the right-hand edge of the Times Bakery that indicated the early forgeries, with shopkeepers holding the ‘blue tenner’ up to the light to see if they had a dud note.
Blue is the colour of sadness, not to say depression. Both Greenway and Lawson suffered from depression and died in poor circumstances. We celebrate them on the currency, but they were not renumerated with any form of currency that might have kept them well.
The original £10 note, that formed the basis for the $20, had a pink hue, amped by Andrews to a bright orange with a yellow contrast. The colour mix gave the idea of sunrise on one side and sunset on the other. The portraits in that orange sky are two aviators: Charles Kingsford Smith on the face, with aerofoils as figures of flight; and Lawrence Hargraves with his box kites that he flew at Stanwell Tops south of Sydney.
Simpler than the $1 and the $10, there are indications that Andrews felt that the plainer $2 and $20 could have been denser in artwork, particularly since he is on record that his design for the $50, produced 7 years later, was far more complicated, and his favourite.
The $20 note was the largest original denomination, popular with crooks and bookies, who still call it a lobster to this day.
The $5 note was produced after the first four because there was no equivalent in pounds. For this note Andrews adopted a bright red, verging on purple. The note is more detailed in its graphics, but the portraits were lesser known.
Joseph Banks had been on Cook's voyages, documenting the fauna in detailed drawings and descriptions, which we celebrate in the name Banksia, and another 80 plants that bear his name. He was a refined scientist, different to the sturdier ‘blokes’ featured otherwise, perfectly suited to a note coloured purple.
The obverse has a portrait of the humanitarian Caroline Chisholm, the only portrait bearing a Christian name. Men, even the cultured Banks, are known solely by their surname on the notes, but Andrews had to indicate exactly which Chisholm he meant, Caroline. She organised young girls and women sailing to Australia to support the fledgling colony.
One of the ships was the ‘Waverley’, which Andrew's puns by putting it on a fluttering pennant at the top of the mizzen mast. It was said that if you could read the word Waverley unaided on a fiver then you had 20:20 vision, or 6:6 in decimal metric.
Going into circulation that day along with the four main notes were a series of coins with beautiful stylized Australian fauna, designed by Stuart Devlin. Andrews later said of his designs “His animal theme was charming and sensitively realized, but unfortunately, the more recent 50 cent, $1 and $2 coins full far short of the initial design standard”.
Gordon Andrews has described his frustration with the quality of his design and the colours used, feeling that he only really got it right in the $50 notes when he had understood the technology and production. But he was unnecessarily harsh upon himself. The graphics in these notes are amongst the finest illustrations of Australian themes without resort to kitsch or patriotic fervour. He got the boldness that he had intended to represent Australia.
Not long after the notes went into circulation, the CSIRO and the Reserve Bank began jointly working on the idea of a polymer being substituted for paper for greater durability and resistance to forgery. Andrews became an advisor and created some of his own possibilities, which are strikingly beautiful and inventive beyond his original notes. Polymer notes are another Australian invention, used around the world, and the subject of a later column.
A final word to Gordon Andrews who bemoaned not only the way the paltry sum paid to the Aborigines, but moreover neither he, nor the Aborigines, owned the copyright. Their images started to appear on dross such as tea towels, drink coasters, and all manner of paraphernalia without a single dollar returning to the designers.
This, despite Australia being a signatory to the Berne convention for the protection of literary and artistic works. The fundamental concept of copyright is that the author of the work owns copyright on that work. Neither Gordon Andrews nor the Arnhem land aborigines were to receive any compensation for the hard work that had gone into the most exhaustive and most expensive graphic design exercise ever undertaken in Australia.
Nevertheless, the results of his endeavours were a series of endearing and long-lasting images, work that could be regarded as the finest graphic design representation of Australia, that found its way into the pockets and purses of every Australian for 22 years.
Plus.one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian Design. You can contact them at [email protected]