Friday, 23 November 2007

Antique Christmas cards are vintage collectables

Technorati Tags: , ,

I'M NOT sending any Christmas cards this year. Not only do they cost a fortune,  considering they're just bits of folded card, but with the added cost of the postage, I decided to save my money.

Instead, my New Year resolution is to add to my collection of Victorian Christmas cards, some of which are pictured here.

Click here for a Christmas card slideshow

Some friends of ours have a lovely Christmas tradition of their own. Instead of sending their family members a new Christmas card each year, the same small collection of "antique" cards gets circulated among them, each person receiving a different one than the previous year.

Rather than being chucked into the waste recycling bin, or chopped up to make gift tabs (which is another useful money-saving tip) our friends' vintage cards are carefully stored away for a year and then brought out to be posted again for a new round of festive cheer.

I'm afraid I wouldn't risk the hazards of the postal service. Not that vintage Christmas cards

are expensive, generally speaking. For a few pounds it's more than possible to pick up any number of cards dating from the late Victorian and early Edwardian era.

Admittedly, some of the earliest and grandest are more expensive, but few break into three figures. None of the cards in my own little collection cost more than £15.

We have Sir Henry Cole, the first director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, to thank for producing the first commercially printed Christmas card.

It was designed by John C. Horsley and its popularity following its launch in the Christmas of 1843 was boosted by the advent of the postage stamp and Sir Rowland Hill's "Penny Post" three years earlier.

Horsley's card was engraved with the scene of a family enjoying Christmas lunch, surrounded by vignettes of charitable acts such as feeding and clothing the poor. The greeting read "And Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You".

The introduction of lithographic printing and other improved printing techniques meant that by the 1850s, beautifully illustrated multi-coloured cards were winging their way around the country by the sackful.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, styles of Christmas cards mirror fashions and artistic tastes of their respective periods.

In addition to the usual Christmas-related images such as jovial Santas, angelic religious scenes, equally angelic and well-dressed children and their pets, and of course snowy chocolate box landscapes, the choice of other subject material seems today to be a little more bizarre.

From my own collection are cards illustrated with ladies riding bicycles, summer flowers in full bloom, swallows perched on a branch of cherry blossom, and arguably the most bizarre -- a pig on a child's swing with an audience of ducks and small birds.

However, whatever their subject, their design echoes the era of their manufacture. It is simple to tell the high Victorian cards from their more modern and florid counterparts produced in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods.

They were, in their own small way, advertisements for the expertise of their printers. Many rose to prominence including Mansell, Goodall, Marcus Ward and Raphael Tuck in England and Bernard Ollendorf, Ernest Nister, Lothar Meggendorfer and the Obpacher Brothers Germany.

The first American Christmas card was produced in the early 1850s as an advertisement for "Pease's Great Varety (sic) Store in the Temple of Fancy". It showed Santa Claus and a happy crowd of people all showing their delight at the presents he had brought them, whilst in the background is a Negro servant setting the Christmas dinner table.

The artists employed to draw illustrations for Christmas cards is a subject for study all to itself. They ranged from the children's illustrator Kate Greenaway to the powerful monochrome images of Aubrey Beardsley.

And then there were the flippant cards: cards that when turned sideways or upside down show a concealed meaning in the drawing; cards that when opened looked like a banknote or cheque or caused them to squeak.

Perhaps one set of cards hardest to understand today were produced in the 1880s in a series by Raphael Tuck named "Silent Songster". They showed dead robins.

At the time, the series was very popular and was imitated by several other firms in subsequent years. Even the accompanying inscriptions are strange. They read "Sweet messenger of calm decay and Peace Divine" or "But peaceful was the night wherein the Prince of Light His reign of peace upon the earth began".

One can only surmise at their purpose. Perhaps it was a mixture of shame for the slaying of a robin or wren over Christmas and a compassion for birds during the cold winter months.

In contrast, one of my favourite inscriptions is on an Edwradian card decorated with a picture of a rotund and hirsute angel-winged stockbroker. It reads: "I hope you will not think it strange/If I fly from the Stock Exchange/To bring you the news surprising/That all the New Year Bonds are rising!".

Anyway, like I said, I'm not sending any Christmas cards this year, so let me take this opportunity to wish all my reader a happy and restful festive season and a prosperous New Year.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Jon Hatfield said...

The diecut card girl feeding boy chef berries is by Harriett M. Bennett, premier UK children artist of the 1880s and 1890s/early artwork from 1887-92 Nister-Dutton children books & earlier Hildesheimer&Faulkner/Whitney booklets featured notably with Stroefer and Nister early postcards & anonymous publisher Euro postcards--later artwork publication unknown but may have been the chief unidentified UK children artist with the U.S. "Winsch" postcards (speculative attribution/equally speculative that Obpacher was the Winsch publisher) & with another unknown German art publisher 1908-11 U.S. postcard group, artwork featured with an earlier unknown-publisher Euro postcard group, mostly noted for early Ellen Clapsaddle publication (speculatively from Edgar Schmidt, Dresden). Harriett M. Bennett is cited by Adolph Tuck in a 1921 London Evening Times interview as one of the two 100 pound prizes in Hildesheimer's 1881 art competition (W. Hagelberg, Berlin, German art printer at the time & later noted art publisher of Victorian greeting cards was one of the 3 judges) and the 25 pound prize in Tuck's 1885(?) art competition. Queen Victoria so admired the Bennett entry in that competition, Tuck stated, that she wrote the artist a personal note of congratulations & thereafter insisted on a Bennett card yearly for her own use. Adolph Tuck cites her as "still painting" in his interview, although, as noted, publication of later artwork is unknown. In extensiveness & number of years in international publication and in quality & amount of known children artwork, Bennett ranks among the 3 most important Victorian children artists with Frances Brundage and Ellen Clapsaddle. Astonishingly the name of this most important children artist was unknown to postcard collectors as late as 2 years ago, known only to collectors of children books.

We tend to think of Victorian children art as merely cute children & manifestations of Victorian sentimentality, but the phenomenon of children art (the first time a civilization chose children as the central subject of its popular art) is the pictorial record of a fundamental social revolution in the status of women and children accomplished in the Victorian period, a social revolution in many ways more basic in Western Civilization than the ideological revolutionary movements & geopolitical developments that preoccupy the attention of historians.

21 May 2008 at 07:02  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Excellent and informative comment. Thanks Jon for taking the time and trouble and thanks also for your interest.

21 May 2008 at 07:28  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home