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Queen Elizabeth II

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the longest reigning monarch in British history. Her portrait has been represented in every Australian banknote series since her coronation, reflecting Australia's constitutional monarchy. Whilst the graphic design, technological features, security elements and narrative themes behind Australia's banknotes have evolved significantly throughout that period, the Queen's portrait on Australian currency has been a thread of continuity woven through seven decades. This online exhibition explores the historical context behind her representation on Australian banknotes and her other connections with the Bank’s history.

The First Queen: 1953

On 6 February 1952, Princess Elizabeth was staying in a remote part of Kenya, the first stage of a tour of the Commonwealth, when she received news of the death of her father, King George VI, and her own accession to the throne. She returned to England the following day and on 8 February formally proclaimed herself Queen and Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith. The Coronation took place the following year in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953.

The first official photograph of the new Queen was taken on 26 February 1952 in order to produce her image for stamps, currency banknotes and coins. The photograph was taken by society photographer Dorothy Wilding who had been the first woman to be appointed as the Official Royal Photographer for the 1937 Coronation of King George VI, and also the first female photographer to receive a Royal Warrant in 1943. Wilding's photographs were noted for their simplicity, using a plain black or white backdrop to ensure that all attention was focused on the sitter. A total of 59 photographs were taken at the sitting, one of which was adapted for use in the Australian currency. The Queen is shown in a gown designed by Norman Hartnell and is wearing the Diamond Diadem which was made in 1820 for the coronation of George IV.

Photographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Dorothy Wilding. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-002951.

The series of Australian banknotes issued in 1953 and 1954 were the first to embody a distinctly Australian tone; instead of featuring the monarch on every note, as they had done since 1925, they featured a new portrait series of prominent persons in Australia's colonial history. The series portrayed Captain Matthew Flinders on the 10 shilling banknote; the Queen on the £1 banknote with Charles Sturt and Hamilton Hume; Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin on the £5 banknote; and Governor Arthur Phillip on the £10 banknote.

The £1 banknote was prepared by the Note Printing Branch of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia with the assistance of M. Napier Waller, artist, and W. Leslie Bowles, sculptor. It was first issued on 21 October 1953. The banknote is black ink printed over a green background. The main feature of the front is a bas-relief profile of Queen Elizabeth II on the right hand side of the note surrounded by Hakea leaves, Hakea Laurina or pincushion flower, which grows wild in south-western Australia. At the centre top is a bas-relief of the Australian Coat of Arms enclosed with Hakea leaves.

Photograph of plaster cast of Queen Elizabeth II in profile, sculpted by W. Leslie Bowles. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-003189.

Front of the £1 banknote, showing Queen Elizabeth II with Hakea laurina, (Pincushion Hakea), intaglio with letterpress background, with watermark of Captain James Cook, first issued in October 1953. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-003794.

The Royal Visit: 1954

The visit of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Australia in February 1954 prompted some of the most lavish and enthusiastic public celebrations of their time. It was the first visit to Australia by a reigning British monarch and the highest level state visit to Australia since Federation. The events staged in each of the major cities drew large crowds. 200,000 Sydneysiders filled the streets of the city on the first night that the decorations in the city were illuminated, bringing road traffic to a standstill.

The Bank made an enthusiastic contribution to the occasion. The Bank's newsletter, Currency records that:

The enthusiasm with which Sydney greeted Her Majesty the Queen exceeded the bounds of imagination. Those who know Sydney crowds have been astounded by the warmth of their welcome … The surge of enthusiasm engulfed the normally austere precincts of Head Office and throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the welcome were the lads and lassies of the Commonwealth Bank.

To coincide with the Queen's visit to Sydney, the Bank's Head Office was richly decorated with bunting, drapes and ornamental crowns. Inside the building, seventy vases of flowers decorated the banking chamber, prompting so much public interest that the building was kept open to visitors until 10pm each night. A portrait of the Queen above her cypher ‘ER II’ was displayed on the mezzanine floor, surrounded by over a thousand green and gold hand-made flowers. The centrepiece of the decorations was the ‘Banker's Arch’, a structure that soared 33 meters above Martin Place. The large crown supported by the arch was floodlit at night.

The hub of the Bank's welcome was Premises department where on any day, amid a flurry of bunting, paper flowers and myriad drawing, the staff could be seen planning the decorations.

- Currency Magazine, March 1954

Head Office of the Commonwealth Bank decorated during the royal tour of 1954. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-007862.

The installation of the ‘Bankers’ Arch above Martin Place as illustrated in Currency magazine, March 1954. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, D12 182131.

The installation of the ‘Bankers’ Arch above Martin Place as illustrated in Currency magazine, March 1954. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, D12 182131.

The Bank's major buildings in each of the state capitals were also richly decorated. The Bank's archives hold photographs of the elaborate displays presented at the Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth branches.

Adelaide branch of the Commonwealth Bank decorated during the royal tour of 1954. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-007860.

Melbourne branch of the Commonwealth Bank decorated during the royal tour of 1954. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-007861.

Perth branch of the Commonwealth Bank decorated during the royal tour of 1954. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-007862.

The Second Elizabethan Age

The accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne sparked optimism for a second ‘Elizabethan Age’ in which the arts would be invigorated with new energy and patronage. The establishment of Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954 was one expression of these aspirations. The Trust was created to commemorate the first royal visit. Dr H C Coombs, then Governor of the Commonwealth Bank and later the inaugural Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, served as the Trust's first Chairman. The Trust's remit was to nurture the development of the arts and to support the creation of world class performing arts companies in Australia. In its first year, the Trust opened the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, Sydney. A number of significant arts organisations can trace their origins to the initiative and foundational support of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. These include Opera Australia, Orchestra Victoria, the Australian Ballet School, Performing Lines, the National Institute for Dramatic Arts, the Bell Shakespeare Company and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. A number of the Trust's initial functions were later transferred to the Australia Council for the Arts, of which Dr Coombs was also the inaugural Chair.

Dr H C Coombs with Mrs Coombs and theatre manager Miss Elsie Beyer (left) at the first Elizabethan Ball, October 1954. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-002843

The Modern Queen: 1966

In 1966 Australia converted to decimal currency and introduced a new currency, the Dollar, with uniquely Australian designs. The design committee for the banknotes decided to change the way in which the Queen was portrayed. They wished to show a monarch who was ‘regal’ rather than ‘pretty’. For this reason they requested that the photographer Douglas Glass be allowed to take a new photograph of the Queen. The designer of the new series, Gordon Andrews, commented:

The portrait of Her Majesty was commissioned to Mr. Douglas Glass during the competition period with a careful brief from the designers concerned – indicating the position of the head – no tiara or coronet – the kind of lighting and regalia. Her Majesty graciously consented to all this. We did not want a ‘pretty’ portrait, but one which had the dignified appearance of a monarch.

There was some doubt as to whether it would be possible to obtain a new photograph for the banknote as when the Bank approached Buckingham Palace with their request in September 1963, the Queen had recently announced her fourth pregnancy. Fortunately the Queen agreed to the request and sat for the portrait on 2 December 1963, when she was six months pregnant with Prince Edward (born 10.3.1964). The photographs were supplied to the Reserve Bank for the specific and only purpose of incorporation into the design of the $1 banknote. The portrait chosen for the banknote depicted the Queen bare-headed and dressed in the regalia of the Order of the Garter.

Photograph portrait of Queen Elizabeth II as supplied for the design of the $1 note. Reserve Bank of Australia Archive, NP-002567.

The front of the banknote featured the Queen and a representation of the Australian Coat of Arms drawn by Andrews in conformity with the Royal Warrant of 1912. On the back of the note was a line interpretation of an Aboriginal bark painting by David Malangi Daymirringu as well as of Aboriginal rock paintings and carvings.

Front of the $1 banknote showing Queen Elizabeth II, intaglio with dry offset printing, with watermark of Captain James Cook; concept design by Gordon Andrews, first issued in February 1966. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-003835.

Back of the $1 banknote showing designs based on a bark painting by David Malangi Daymirringu and Aboriginal rock paintings and carvings to the right, intaglio with dry offset printing, with watermark of Captain James Cook; concept design by Gordon Andrews, first issued in February 1966. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-003835.

The Contemporary Queen: 1992, 2016

In 1992 the Queen celebrated the 40th anniversary of her accession and the Reserve Bank released the first of its new series of polymer banknotes, the $5 banknote. The four remaining polymer banknotes were released each year until 1996 when Australian banknotes were converted to a full polymer series. The polymer banknotes had been developed by the Reserve Bank of Australia, CSIRO and the University of Melbourne as a more secure and durable replacement for paper.

The $5 banknote attracted some criticism when its design was released because the portrait of the Queen replaced that of Caroline Chisholm who had appeared on the first decimal $5 banknote. The Reserve Bank defended its decision to include the portrait of the Queen, explaining that the monarch's portrait always appeared on at least one banknote; as Australia remained a constitutional monarchy, it was still appropriate to depict the Queen on Australia's banknotes.

The $5 banknote was designed by Bruce Stewart, Chief Designer at Note Printing Australia. As a young engraver working at Note Printing Branch in 1963 Stewart had engraved the image of the Queen for use on Australia's first decimal currency banknote. The engraved image of the Queen on the polymer $5 note was Stewart's interpretation of a photographic portrait by John Lawrence which had been commissioned by the Bank in 1984.

Photographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by John Lawrence, 1984. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, P12/272.

In addition to the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, the front of the banknote features the branch of a gum tree (Eucalyptus haemastoma). The reverse of the banknote depicts views of Old and New Parliament House, Canberra, which was opened by the Queen on 9 May 1988. Taken together the two sides of the note reflect Australia's system of democracy based on the constitutional monarchy and the Westminster parliamentary structure.

Front of the $5 banknote showing Queen Elizabeth II, offset and intaglio printing on polymer substrate, with a clear window depicting a gum flower; concept design by Bruce Stewart, first issued in April 1995. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, 18/73812

This 1995 version of the $5 banknote recoloured the 1992 version in order to distinguish it more clearly from the $10 banknote of the series.

Back of the $5 banknote, offset and intaglio printing on polymer substrate, with a clear window depicting a gum flower; concept design by Bruce Stewart, first issued in April 1995. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, D18/73805

The same photograph of the Queen by John Lawrence was used as the source for her portrait on the new $5 banknote, first issued in 2016 as the first banknote in a new series, the Next Generation of Banknotes. More detail is apparent in this portrait than the banknote of 1992, owing to advances in printing technology. The Queen's portrait appears on this $5 banknote with images of the Federation Star and the Federation Pavilion of 1901, together with examples of Australia's flora and fauna, being the Prickly Moses wattle (Acacia verticillata subspecies ovoidea) and the Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris).

Tonal sketch and line drawings of Queen Elizabeth II prepared by Robert Cook of Note Printing Australia for the Next Generation of Banknotes series, issued from 2016. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, 20/1274, 20/1275.

A revised portrait of Queen Elizabeth II being drawn by Robert Cook of Note Printing Australia. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, P16/27482.

The signature side of the $5 banknote, offset and intaglio printing on polymer substrate; concept design by emerystudio, first issued in September 2016. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, D16/196230.

The serial side of the $5 banknote, offset and intaglio printing on polymer substrate; concept design by emerystudio, first issued in September 2016. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, D16/196235.