Skip to content


The Course of Empire

Early designs for the 1950s banknotes had included the portrait of King George VI; his death in 1952 led to Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the throne. The reigning monarch had been portrayed on all denominations in previous series, but the Queen appeared only on the £1 banknote in the new series. The decision to restrict her portrait was influenced by the consideration that it limited the number of denominations to be changed with the succession of the next monarch. The Queen continued to appear on single denominations in subsequent series: the $1 banknote of 1966 and the $5 banknotes, first issued in 1992 and 2016.

The 1950s series was designed with the assistance of the artist Mervyn Napier Waller and the sculptor Leslie Bowles, who had provided a design for the Australian florin of 1951. Both artists had made major contributions to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Leslie Bowles had developed some of its sculptures and became the head sculptor of the Memorial's modelling section, and Napier Waller created mosaic and stained glass works for its Hall of Memory.

Leslie Bowles prepared the plaster bas-relief medallion of the Commonwealth coat of arms for the series and, for the £1 banknote, he created medallions of the Queen and the explorers Charles Sturt and Hamilton Hume, their profiles recalling the style used for coins from antiquity. The native plant chosen for this banknote was Hakea laurina. As its botanical name indicates, the species resembles laurel leaves which have been associated especially with Greek victors and Roman emperors. These elements of the banknote's design evoke the continuity of ancient civilisations in the British Empire and its foundation of colonies.

Detail of the back of the £1 banknote showing Hamilton Hume with Hakea laurina.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-003794.

The identities depicted on the other denominations appeared in the style of the portrait miniatures, echoing the medallion format of the figures on the £1 banknote. With their intimate scale and portability, portrait miniatures have been favoured traditionally as private keepsakes, especially for those separated during travel. The banknotes' style of portraiture conveys this tradition for the naval officers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – Matthew Flinders, Sir John Franklin and Arthur Phillip.

The historical figures were complemented on the reverse sides of the banknotes by representations of the contemporary nation that developed from colonial antecedents. The images reflect an assurance in the country's stable government, prosperous agriculture and advanced science.

Explore the series of Pocket Guides