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Building Friendships: Christmas cards in the Colin St John Wilson Archive
Miriam O'Connor Perks
[ Introduction )
Assistant Curator Miriam O’Connor Perks explores some of the intriguing Christmas cards from the Wilson Archive that feature in our current Christmas Cards by Modern British Artists exhibition.
Christmas cards are a way to send love and good wishes to family and friends at the end of the year. Looking at the Christmas cards on display in the Gallery’s Print Room, one can see how artists embrace and celebrate friendships with other artists and collectors. The cards use humorous greetings to show both affection and experiment with different styles and techniques.
Many of the cards on display come from the Wilson Archive, donated to the Gallery alongside Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson and M J Long’s significant collection of post-war British art. The archive is an incredibly rich resource, as Wilson kept a meticulous record of his life and work. The notes he made demonstrate the importance of friendship to the decisions behind the artworks he selected and the artists he supported.
Wilson built his collection often through the generosity of artists, including Eduardo Paolozzi, a firm friend and part of the wider artistic network known as the Independent Group, who gathered at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) in the 1950s.
One of the Christmas cards in the Print Room display features a design by Paolozzi, sent from the ICA in 1957, with his signature imagery – machines and engines, and mechanical toys. A defining moment for Wilson as a collector was being struck by a collage by Paolozzi at the Mayor Gallery on Cork Street London in the late 1940s. Upon hearing Wilson’s gasp of ‘Wow’, Paolozzi, who was in the gallery at the time, declared, ‘You can have it if you like’. So began one of the most important collections of British post-war art and a significant friendship.
The Independent Group was a highly sociable bunch. The artists, architects and critics associated with the group would meet at the ICA to discuss new ideas around art, science, technology and culture as well as at friend’s houses and pubs in Soho. In some way these social gatherings were equally important, as it was where you could meet ‘everyone who mattered’.
This atmosphere of dialogue and collaboration led to exciting new ways of thinking about art and architecture, and the iconic This Is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. The contributors to the exhibition worked in groups comprising an artist, an architect and a theorist and were encouraged to apply an interdisciplinary approach. One can imagine the ideas for this show beginning at a rendezvous at the ‘French’ pub in Soho, with artists on one side of the bar and architects on the other.
Parties are the inspiration behind fellow architect Alan Colquhoun’s Christmas card, a collage that makes reference to the ‘gala’ and features a cut-out picture of a stylish woman with the famous Christian Dior ‘New Look’ silhouette. In reaction to the austere and utilitarian styles of the past decade, the idea of opulence had returned to fashion, along with an explosion of images through the mass media.
The 1950s was a period in which the centre of modern art was shifting from Paris to New York, and a new generation of artists associated with Abstract Expressionism was at the forefront of modern art. Colquhoun makes playful reference to Jackson Pollock by adding paint drips and splashes to the background of his card, over which he has pasted an image cut from a magazine advertisement, bringing together art and fashion, and breaking down barriers between high and low culture.
The Independent Group regarded objects and images from popular culture as equal to fine art. Artists and architects, including Nigel Henderson and Alison and Peter Smithson would collect and make scrapbooks of images taken from magazines or newspapers. Nigel Henderson reflected the proliferation of images from popular culture through collage in his Christmas card to Wilson. The way Henderson plays around with the size and placement of the lettering is similar to how advertisers manipulate images and text to attract consumers. The Independent Group were also fascinated with new technologies and science fiction. In Henderson’s card, through creating an odd sense of scale, the lamp begins to look like a rocket, perhaps referring to the space race between the USA and the USSR.
The fact that Wilson kept these Christmas cards reflects the Independent Group’s passion for collecting objects from popular culture, with the Christmas card being exactly the kind of cultural ephemera they would be interested in.
Architects Alison and Peter Smithson even staged Christmas themed exhibitions in the 1970s, including 24 Doors to Christmas at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge in 1979. In preparation, Alison Smithson would make scrapbooks from Christmas cards, as part of her research. Using a cultural phenomenon such as Christmas, the Smithsons explored their ideas around architecture, domestic spaces and the need to renew a sense of collective responsibility for the look and use of places.
Alison Smithson said, ‘Christmas is the one time of year in western societies when people will, in concert, decorate their homes so as to change the mood of the place they live in.’
Ways of decorating reflect individual tastes and personalities. The Smithsons’ Christmas tree was minimalist in design, made from a galvanised pump pipe and broom handle screwed into the floor.
Alison Smithson’s Christmas card, of a steaming Christmas pudding, complete with a pull-out silver coin embossed with the architects’ logo, was sent to Sandy Wilson around this time. Alison Smithson was a prolific Christmas card maker, cutting lino-block prints or collages at home and producing up to 150 cards, often whilst watching TV with her family. In later years, she gave the blocks to be printed by her life-long friend and architect Ron Simpson, who had acquired a printing press.
Christmas cards are also a meaningful way to keep in touch with the people you worked with – artists, architects, curators, collectors. Therefore it is not uncommon to send cards, with a view to demonstrate care, and create something reflective of your work as an artist or architect.
The numerous handmade, personalised and highly individual Christmas cards on display in the exhibition, which were received by Colin St John Wilson over several decades show, that creative friendships are rich, nurturing and enduring.
Christmas Greetings by Modern British Artists can be seen until January 6th 2022.