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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Christmas cards: A very British history

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Our exhibition, ‘Christmas Greetings by Modern British Artists‘, in 2021 was packed full of personal Christmas cards, beautifully designed and handmade by some of our favourite Modern British artists – Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, and Ben Nicholson to name but a few.

Exchanging cards and festive greetings is now synonymous with Christmas, but how did the tradition start? It turns out the humble Christmas card has very British roots…

The very first recorded Christmas card was sent way back in 1611 by Michael Maier (not to be confused with Halloween’s masked protagonist!), a German physician, to King James I of England and his son the Prince of Wales. The rather elaborate greeting read…

A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612.

As touching a greeting as it was, the notion of exchanging cards at Christmas didn’t really get going for another 200 years or so! Enter Sir Henry Cole – a prominent civil servant, the first Director of the V&A, and the man who introduced the Penny Post system.

Picture this; it’s 1843 and Christmas is an especially busy time in the Cole household. There’s piles upon piles of unanswered mail and festive correspondence and so Henry begins his search for a timesaving solution. The solution presented was an elaborately illustrated card, designed by Henry’s friend John Callcott Horsley.

All of the Cole family were featured, in full middle-class merriment, sitting around a table drinking wine. Either side of the family are illustrated acts of giving, and charity. The now staple greeting, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you’, hung on a banner in the foreground.

The idea of course was that the design could be printed en masse and a personalised, but short, hand-written message written inside. Henry and his family must have had a lot of friends, because they commissioned a whopping 1000 of these cards to be printed!

A traditional Christmas scene of people gathered around a table eating and drinking

The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843

What’s interesting about this Christmas card design is that the message was one of charity and celebration, not of religion. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that early British card designs rarely showed winter or religious themes.

Whimsical themes such as flowers or fairies became popular, alongside humorous or sentimental illustrations of children or animals. Scenes of middle-class jubilation – drinking, dancing and celebrating –  remained popular even into the 20th century (as can be seen in the card below by Barnett Freedman).

A letterbox shaped card with a diamond patterned background inlilac and blue. A rounded rectangular central panel depicts a crowded Christmas party in a mid-century living room. This is flanked on the left by a sheath of papers with writing on them except the top sheet, which has a drawing of a rose. To the right is a pile of books with a twig resting on the top.

Barnett Freedman, Christmas Card (interior), 1950, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (On Loan from a Private Collection) © Estate of Barnett Freedman

Christmas cards, initially printed in small numbers, remained expensive and out of reach for most Britons. For example, Henry Cole made his first Christmas card available for purchase at the price of one shilling, expensive for the time, approximately £3 today. As a result, the venture was considered a commercial flop.

But this doesn’t mean that the Christmas card was done. The 1840s were an especially festive time – Prince Albert introduced the idea of a decorated Christmas tree, and Charles Dickens published his Christmas classic ‘A Christmas Carol’, in the same year as Henry Cole’s first Christmas card, in 1843. Christmas had never been so popular, and its commercialisation was now in full swing.

A coloured engraving depicting Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children gathered around a Christmas tree hung with decorations

By the 1870s the Christmas trend was firmly established, and advances in printing and publishing technology meant that firms such as the lithographers ‘Prang and Meyer’ could begin mass-producing affordable Christmas cards for everyone. In 1874, Prang and Meyer introduced the Christmas card to America and cemented Henry Cole’s timesaving solution as an international trend. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to 20th century Britain, and artists such as Enid Marx and Ben Nicholson offer an alternative to commercial mass-production with their personal, hand-made designs. Here’s some of our favourite designs from the exhibition…

Find out more about our 2021 exhibition ‘Christmas Greetings by Modern British Artists’.

A selection of Christmas cards, including designs by Emily Sutton, Barnett Freedman and Ben Nicholson, featured in the exhibition, are available to buy at Pallant House Gallery Bookshop.