Typical banknotes combined fine calligraphy and small pictorial illustrations. Their designs were frequently a collaborative process, involving close communication between bank directors, partners and engraver-printers such as Perkins and Co. Occasionally, letters to Perkins requested designs from the firm, but more often than not the banks provided their own visual or textual directions for how their notes should look. Several letters contained additional hand-drawn sketches or collages, which acted as instructions for Perkins to follow.
Sketched designs were frequently accompanied by written annotations concerning the positioning of denominations, the typeface of the bank name or the form of the vignette. In 1822, Saddleworth Union sent Perkins a letter with a proof of their £5 note and details of alterations: ‘We observe the corner above the device of the Oak Tree looks rather bare; if you could introduce a neat figure of five there, or carry the flourishes with the word “Saddleworth” into that space…we think that would be an improvement’.
In 1825, the Burlington and Driffield Bank wasted no time in outlining their exact demands: ‘We do not like notes crowded with ornaments and we think human figures generally stiff and vulgar. Thick scrolls of wreaths we much prefer’.
The tone and detail of Burlington and Driffield’s instructions were not unique. In 1827, a letter from Belfast Commercial Bank explained that ‘the designs are handsome but we want another drawing from you and shall explain as near as possible the wishes of the partners’. A clear set of directions followed, with words and phrases of particular importance underlined once or twice to emphasise their significance.
When Perkins and Co. did not fulfil expectations, their clients were quick to show their displeasure. In 1837, the Provident Bank of Ireland noted that they were ‘much disappointed at the alteration in the name of the bank not being made’.
In 1825, the Dewsbury Bank offered a more detailed appraisal of Perkins’ designs, observing: ‘We think the design given us for our new note plate by no means handsome, or indeed to compare in Beauty with the Old one, indeed as far as our opinion goes we should prefer the old to the design sent to us if both equally secure’.
Aesthetic concerns dominated the letters to Perkins. The words ‘beauty’, ‘handsome’, ‘neat’ and ‘taste’ were often repeated, confirming the important role that high quality design played in the production of banknotes. Beautiful designs were a point of pride and seen by provincial banks as a projection of taste. The letters also occasionally conveyed the competition that occurred between provincial banks, especially those in geographical proximity. In 1825, Dewsbury Bank asked that their order of 3,000 notes be produced on good paper, ‘such as you gave Rawson Co. of Huddersfield’.