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English Christmas Cards

English Christmas Cards – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – December 2001

By Carol Woodbury

The avant garde English magazine, The Studio, is a wonderful place to glimpse the artistic atmosphere of the late 19th – early 20th centuries. Articles and reviews cover every school of art, every small town’s art show, every major UK and Continental Exhibition. The people we now in hushed voices tend to elevate to ‘Major Arts and Crafts Artists’ appear in The Studio pages in their natural context. That is, they appear as part of the daily life of the artistic community, right beside the members of the Royal Academy.

“Time will tell,” they say. And not all the artists discussed in The Studio magazines have withstood the test of time. More interestingly, sometimes an article will include several artists whom hindsight now shows to have been on diverging paths as surely as Neanderthal and Cro Magnon Man. In 1890, there was the Royal Academy Establishment ( “Victorians” ) and there were the “New Young Artists.” Some of the New Young Artists are now remembered as leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement. Some of both groups have faded into obscurity.

My case in point is a wonderful supplement to The Studio, published as an extra number for Christmas 1894. It is entitled “Christmas Cards and Their Chief Designers,” by Gleeson White, the magazine’s most prolific writer. In it, Mr. White treated all the young artists of the 1880’s as one common pool of talent. Kate Greenaway alongside Walter Crane alongside Cave France alongside C.M.Gere….WHO?… all earning their early keep as designers of Christmas cards.

“Pack-rats” and “magpies” haven’t gotten their reputations for naught. It must be in our DNA, because as fast as a new fad catches on, there are people who start to collect. And the English may have a double pack-rat strand, for they are collectors extraordinaire.

Christmas card production had no sooner begun in England, than it flourished. And it no sooner became a staple of the holiday season, than collectors began to amass examples for their collections. The popularity of this endeavor is attested to by Mr. Gleeson White in 56 pages and an amazing 124 illustrations of 1860’s – 1890’s Christmas cards.

Mr. White waxed poetic both about the beauty of the early cards and the wonderful economic boon their production was to the struggling artists of the day. His main thesis was that when the Christmas Card was new it was vital—designed by fresh young artists. With popularity however, as ordinary laymen, businessmen, sales representatives, et al. became involved, the high quality of card production slipped dismally, until mass production brought the “Christmas Card as Art” down to the level of “Pretty Pictures for the Masses.” Yet, he admits, they were all collected alike in 1894 and, I dare say, as they are ‘til today.


Mr. White discussed the Christmas card’s murky beginnings 50 years earlier. Even in 1894 no one was sure if the1841 card “A Gude New Year to Ye” from Thomas Shorrock of Leith, Scotland was the same card that was touted to be the first greeting card: an 1840-41 Daniel Aikman “copper engraving with Scottish motto.” Or if Sir Henry Cole’s well-known 1846 engraving by J.C.Horsley, R.A., should be awarded the distinction since it specifically adds Christmas to the New Year wishes: “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to you.” He discloses a rumor that even prior to 1840, Yorkshire and Northumberland engravers’ apprentices sent specimens of their own work to friends at the holidays. But, he notes, this may or may not be true.

Originally, these cards were not necessarily artistic. Sentiments were brief , as if to afford a way of expressing one’s goodwill to one’s neighbors without too embarrassingly passionate a message. Although, “undoubtedly the habit of sending cards owes its origin to the birth of the Christ child, it is odd to find,” says Mr. White, “in how comparatively few instances it recognizes, even remotely, that it is not a secular but a sacred function which is being celebrated.” (1)

In the 1840’s, relief-decorated note papers and Valentine and Birthday cards (publ. by R. Canton) were slowly supplemented with Christmas mottoes. A Mr. Elliott in 1850 replaced hand-coloring with “foreign” chromo-lithograph pictures. 2-color stamping of these relief’s began in 1858. At this time German ‘die-cuts’ were being imported in large numbers and greatly influenced Thierry, of Fleet Street, London, in his improvements on greeting card production methods.

The Prince Consort’s Christmas trees, Charles Dickens’ sentimentality, and chance experimentation by tradesmen (who may or may not have known of Sir Henry Cole’s card of 20 years before) probably all contributed to the institution of a new courtesy, a new custom. By the 1860’s, the demand for cards arose in all classes. At first sent to familiar friends only, thence to the most distant of acquaintances.


1862 is thought to have seen the first instance of the Christmas cards’ general acceptance. Messer’s Goodall and Sons, playing card manufacturers, produced a series of cards with embossed designs by Luke Limner after the artist John Leighton. This was followed yearly with a rapidly increasing number of designs. In 1866 Mr. Josiah Goodall commissioned Marcus Ward & Co. of Belfast to lithograph a set of four designs by C. H. Bennett, and did so again in 1867. “These, together with Luke Limner’s border design of Holly, Mistletoe, and Robins, may be taken as the forerunners of the real Christmas Card.” (2)

Although Goodall and Sons ceased production soon thereafter, Marcus Ward & Co. from 1867 onward reached the highest level of decorative excellence. This firm for awhile monopolized the whole of the better-class trade under the supervision of Thomas Crane, brother of Walter Crane, who saw to it that the cards were refined and appropriately ornamented on borders and backs, lettering not left to chance, etc.

All manner of inappropriate pastimes are represented in these early cards, perhaps reminiscent of the tastes of the sender or recipient with no regard for their untimely appearance—swimming, boating cricketing, tennis, nude children shivering in the snow. Medieval pleasantries abound on early cards, reflecting the Gothic element which was at the time accepted as the English ideal of decorative art. The Aesthetic period left its mark in acres of flattened sunflowers and angular damsels with peacock feathers. In 1894, Mr. White writes that the Rococo was supreme in the furniture shops and that cards had adopted its erratic curves and tortured forms, “with some delicate beauty that can only be attained in this most abandoned of all styles.”

The most positive effect of the clamor for new card designs was the job opportunities in design for commercial purpose. Struggling young artists were discovered by and sustained in their early years by the card manufacturers. Kate Greenaway was one of the first discovered by Mr. William Ward of Messer’s Ward & Co. He recognized her special talent for costumed figures and dainty colors.

The Supplement article continues with discussions of the artistic merits of the various artists employed in the design of the best cards. Mr. H.Stacy Marks, for example, is lauded for his 1873 medieval scenes in bold, arbitrary outline in the Japanese manner and his use of flat color with purely decorative shading. This is in contrast to contemporaries whose chief effort, says Mr. White is to imitate a little picture without the slightest attempt to make the card itself a decorative and complete design.


It was Mr. White’s considered opinion that the period from 1878 to 1888 was the heyday of Christmas Card production. The young artists who designed the cards either were or went on to become artists of great repute and their talents greatly enriched the selections available to the buying public. “During the most notable period of production, 1882, one firm alone paid in a single year seven thousand pounds to artists for original drawings.”(3) This, at a time when few companies even made seven thousand pounds profit in a year.

The growing popularity of the Christmas card can be seen in the fact that in 1880 the first shop owners to feature cards—Messrs. Bottne and Tidswell—placed an order for £ 10,000 worth. Up to this time, cards had been sold individually through booksellers and stationers, but by the 1880’s they were carried by drapers, tobacconists, toy shops, etc.; the most major firm’s turnover on cards being L6,000 in one year. Thus, slowly, as the number of cards sent and received grew larger and larger, the trend towards mass production and price per dozen took precedence over individuality. No longer could the greetings on each card be carefully screened for suitability for its specific recipient. Hence, a rapid public welcome to the innocuous formal greeting – never too warm or too stilted. In fact, by 1894 Mr. White decried the decline of the careful practice by society of sending cards from its elevated level of just ten years before.

Overall, during its heyday, Mr. White felt there were two firms which can be distinguished as “classical” publishers. The first, Messrs. Ward & Co., employed artists who saw that an architectural, not a pictorial, aim was the correct one. Prominent among them were Kate Greenaway, H. Stacy Marks, Walter Crane, A.H.Lockyer, Percy Tarrant, Henry Rylands, Edwin J.Ellis, S.T.Dadd, Patty Townsend, H. Arnold, Fred Miller, Moyr [sic] Smith, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Crane.

High praise was also given to the second company, Messrs. de la Rue, who entered the field in 1875 and continued with a high degree of mechanical excellence and great fertility of idea until 1885. The list of respected artists who designed for them, while not so well-known today, is also large and includes W.S.Coleman and E.G.Thomson. They faithfully followed what remains the purist’s ideal of a card—a symmetrical, decorated panel, complete in itself, and treated usually within a framework bearing a legend.

Ward and de la Rue maintained a constant high standard of design, sentiment, and production, but there were other companies whose cards also became popular in the 80’s: Messrs. Raphael Tuck & Co., S. Hildesheimer & Co., Hildesheimer & Faulkner, and Ernest Nister. It is obvious that Mr. White did not think highly of their catering to the taste for “meretricious rubbish” or satisfaction with mere “facsimile reproduction of drawings by well-known artists, only by accident Christmas cards…a change of lettering [would have] made them equally suitable for Birthday or Easter greetings.”(4) He did, however, include some illustrations and listings of the best cards produced by them. It is interesting to note how prodigious their production was. For the single year 1881, for instance, Raphael Tuck & Co. offered 180 sets of cards representing 700 designs in its sample books!(5)


Mr. White lamented the fact that he could not give bibliographies of each artist, for neither did the artists sign their work nor did the companies keep complete sets of their production. Thus it was important to him that in 1894 there were some serious collectors who were preserving a record of the field. Already the habit of collecting examples of the best cards from each year, of complete design sets, of specific artist’s works was well on it’s way to a recognized position among hobbies, such as book-plates collecting had already achieved and posters were beginning to obtain.

Mr. Jonathan King(6) is specifically cited as having followed the subject more closely than any other person. By 1894 his personal collection spanning the years between 1862 and 1894 numbered approximately 163,000 varieties of cards and were contained in 700 volumes weighing between 6 and 7 tons!

Rumor in the artistic community in 1894 had it that the British Museum was about to acquire a comprehensive collection of cards as a record of the social custom and highly artistic industry of purely English origin. For, as Mr. White said, “if the present generation find them merely ‘old-fashioned,’ in a few decades they would appear ‘quaint’ and ‘curious,’ and finally be appreciated as very ‘interesting ephemerae’ of a very interesting period in English art production.” (7)

More than 100 years after Mr. White wrote this sentence, here I am, writing about these ‘interesting ephemerae’ in America where we too collect postcards, posters, and Christmas Cards! Julia Bigham(8) of the Victoria and Albert Museum tells me that Mr. King’s collection was the one on it’s way to the British Museum. Sadly, however, it was largely destroyed by fire before it could be donated. Ms. Bigham believes the remains of it were purchased by dealers from America! The British Museum’s(9) earliest cards date from the 1840’s. Their most prized group of Christmas Cards is Queen Mary’s(10) collection: 31 albums dating from 1872 through 1952. The Christmas Card collections at both museums may be viewed through their Prints Departments.

1. Gleeson White, Studio supplement, 1894, p.7
2. White, p.15
3. White, p.4
4. White, p.22
5. White, p.25
6. Mr. King was from a family of stationers and planned to have his cards to go to the Br. Museum. His collection of toy theaters is held by the Museum of London.
7. White, p.11
8. Thanks to Julia Bigham of the Prints Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
9. Thanks to Martin Royalton-Kisch of the Prints and Drawings Department of the British Museum, London.
10. Queen Mary, 1867 – 1953, wife of King George V, grandmother of Queen Elizabeth.

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