In 1957, the Bank of England opened a new printing press in Debden on the edge of London, and a series of drawings of the people working in the building have gone on display for the first time.
To drawings were preparatory sketches made by the Polish born expressionist artist Feliks Topolski as part of his research for four paintings of the new building that had been commissioned by the Bank to show off its modernist concrete achievement.
Unfortunately, the bank and its staff seemed rather displeased with the end result which wasn’t quite as conventional as they had expected. The bank also had to buy up all the sketches for security reasons, and these were locked away in a vault, hopefully they thought, to never be seen again.
The opening of the new Debden printing works in 1956 signalled a great leap forward for the Bank of England and one which it wished to commemorate. The following year, the Bank of England commissioned Topolski to create an illustrated record of the building, its staff and the intricate process that saw paper enter the east end of the building and emerge from the west side as finished banknotes.
Topolski’s drawings show off the panoramic views from the inspectors’ galleries, across the different stages of banknote manufacture, but rather than primarily delivering grand visions, much of his work is very close up with the people working in the building.
From the ladies who could check 15,000 bank notes per day by hand (only recently replaced by machines), to the very bored looking overseers who were supposed to keep an eye on security.
One of the sketches shows people inspecting sheets as they come off the printing press, and it looks, not entirely unsurprisingly, not dissimilar to something that could be seen at the great newspaper printers in Fleet Street at the time.
While the pictures capture an atmosphere of concentrated industry, they also carry an air of social buzz around the new community that was growing in Debden at the time. After the Second World War, many people moved away from London’s Blitz-damaged East End to the new Debden housing estate, creating a ready-made workforce for the Printing Works when it moved to the area.
Staff are shown at leisure as well as at work, playing table tennis in the recreation hall (seemingly over the top of the snooker table), knitting, drinking tea and reading in the canteen, or in one case, captured for posterity in the middle of biting into a sandwich.
Although the sketches look rough, they reward closer inspection, for the shoe half on a foot, to the facial expressions that translated into the final paintings. Topolski had a very sharp eye for the smallest of elements that needed to be captured for a drawing to have the depth it needed, while his sketching style stripped away the clutter.
The original works will be displayed on rotation though the exhibition to protect them from light damage.
The exhibition in the Bank of England museum is open now until “summer 2019”, and entry is free. The museum is only open Mon-Fri.