Untold lives blog

12 November 2013

“Is this my best side?” – George VI on Indian Banknotes

In 1936 the United Kingdom had three different monarchs.  King George V died on 20 January 1936, and his oldest son, Edward VIII, succeeded him.  But Edward abdicated on 11 December of that same year, and his younger brother, George, ascended the throne.  George VI (r.1936-1952) became the last British monarch to be Emperor of India.

The unexpected and rapid chain of events raised many questions regarding the design of India’s banknotes.  When a new monarch came to power, he or she would traditionally be shown in profile, facing the opposite direction from the previous monarch.  On India’s colonial currency, George V had faced left.

1 F5064 detail
Portrait of Emperor George V of India on a specimen bank note. (F5064)  Noc

The next king, Edward VIII, should have faced right, but there hadn’t been time to issue Indian banknotes with his portrait.  Should his brother, and successor, George VI, face left or right?  Both designs were considered, as can be seen in these photo montages of George VI’s face, pasted over the print design for George V’s portrait.

2 F5145 detail   3 F5146 detail
Noc   Left and right facing portraits of George VI.   Photo montage of a possible design, showing George VI’s face pasted over a portrait of George V in ceremonial attire.  (F5145)

Another suggestion was to not bother showing George VI in profile at all.  Instead, he could be shown staring straight out of the banknote.

4 F5112 detailFrontal portrait of Emperor George VI of India wearing ceremonial attire. Detail from a specimen bank note. (F5112)  Noc

In 1944, some notes with this frontal portrait were printed.  Another proposed design, which was a further departure from tradition, was a frontal portrait of George VI without the ceremonial crown and collar worn by the Emperor of India.  This portrait was never used.

5 F5119 detail
Frontal portrait of Emperor George VI of India without his crown. Detail from a specimen bank note that was never issued. (F5119)  Noc

In 1938, the most conservative, predictable portrait of George VI was used, showing him facing left, wearing full ceremonial gear, just like his father, George V.  Most Indian banknotes during the final years of colonial rule showed this portrait.  Some of the bank note portraits also showed him seated inside a stylised window, just like a Mughal Emperor.

6 F5092 detail
Portrait of Emperor George VI looking left, wearing ceremonial attire, and framed by an ornate window. Detail from a specimen bank note. (F5092)  Noc

Jennifer Howes
Curator Visual Arts   Cc-by

Further reading:

All of the portraits shown here are from the British Library’s India Office Currency Collection.
Giordano, J.S. Portraits of a Prince: Coins, Medals and Banknotes of Edward VIII. London: Spink, 2009.
Razack, Rezwan and Kishore, Jhunjhunwalla. The Revised standard reference guide to Indian paper money. Mumbai: Currency & Coins, 2012.



It seems that the Frontal Portrait of Emperor George VI of India without his crown was never used for Indian banknotes but used in Ceylon notes of 1941 (P33).

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