Bizarre Best Wishes – the Weird & Wonderful World of Victorian Christmas cards

Children attacking a large pudding on a Christmas card. Date: circa 1890s

10997093: Children attacking a large pudding on a Christmas card. Date: circa 1890s

For any student of Christmas festive facts, they will know that first Christmas card was designed in 1846 by John Calcott Horsley at the request of Sir Henry Cole, later Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.  About one thousand hand-coloured copies were produced, printed by Mr. Jobbins of Holborn and published by Joseph Cundall of Old Bond Street.  The design incorporated two scenes of charity flanking a central picture of a typically Victorian family cheerily raising a glass to toast the recipient of the card.  Although Horsley’s card is the acknowledged ‘first’ Christmas design, another, even earlier card, was designed by Mr. W. N. Egley, and sent by the artist to friends and family in 1842.  Whichever can claim to be truly the first Christmas card, they triggered a trend that became a festive tradition as familiar as trees and mince pies.

These early examples had been private ventures but by the 1860s the firm of Messrs. Goodall had begun to issue Christmas cards to the trade.  In the decades that followed, Christmas card sending rose to prodigious proportions.   During the Christmas period of 1882 for example, more than 14,000,000 letters and packages were delivered in the London area alone.  Such was the demand for new designs of good quality that in 1879, card publishers Raphael Tuck held an exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London, with well-known Academicians as judges and 500 guineas in prizes.  The contest attracted nearly 900 entrants and was so popular that a second and grander competition, judged by Sir John Millais and Marcus Stone, was held in 1882.  This time £5000 was awarded in prizes.  The result was that many famous artists, including Stone, George Clausen, G. D. Leslie and W. F. Yeames, entered the Christmas card market, with one firm paying out £7000 for drawings in a single season.  Years later, a 1936 interview with Desmond Tuck of Raphael Tuck published in The Sphere, revealed that each season the company rose to the challenge of creating no fewer than 3000 original Christmas card designs, achieving this with a permanent staff of fifteen designers, freelance commissions from outside artists and licensing works from art galleries and museums.  Tuck were undoubtedly market leaders.  They exclusively produced the royal family’s Christmas cards each year and ensured that the designs were distributed to the press who duly published them (many featured patriotic scenes or historic royals from the past), and they pioneered novelty cards alongside more sedate, traditional designs.  In 1901, The Tatler magazine commented on a box of Christmas cards sent by the canny marketeers at Raphael Tuck:

“All Raphael Tuck’s cards are pretty and artistic, but what struck me as the most ingenious were the expanding cards, i.e., those cards by which a slight manipulation can be transformed into ships, soldiers and horses of a real shape and form.”

An 1842 design for a Christmas card by Mr W. N. Egley, though the general consensus is that the first was by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in 1846. There is some debate over whether this one was designed in 1842 or 1848. Nevertheless, a very early example, perhaps the earliest! Date: 1842

11657256: An 1842 design for a Christmas card by Mr W. N. Egley, though the general consensus is that the first was by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in 1846. There is some debate over whether this one was designed in 1842 or 1848. Nevertheless, a very early example, perhaps the earliest! Date: 1842

Reputedly the first Christmas card, this was designed by Horsley in 1843, and a coloured version sent out by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 Date: 1843-1846

10021527: Reputedly the first Christmas card, this was designed by Horsley in 1843, and a coloured version sent out by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 Date: 1843-1846

The designing room at Raphael Tuck & Sons, fine art publishers of prints, cards, Almanacks and postcards, staffed largely by women. Tuck were one of the leading card and postcard publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Date: 1903

11657260: The designing room at Raphael Tuck & Sons, fine art publishers of prints, cards, Almanacks and postcards, staffed largely by women. Tuck were one of the leading card and postcard publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Date: 1903

Several examples were shown but it is notable that not one single card appears to us to be particularly festive – there are donkeys on the sands of a coastal resort, a Chinese pleasure boat, circus horses and their riders,  a man-o-war in full dress and eighteenth century dandies carrying a lady in a sedan chair.  Not a single snowflake or twinkling bauble in sight.

211657259 (left): Adolph Tuck, Sir Adolph Tuck, 1st Baronet (1854-1926), fine art publisher and chairman of Raphael Tuck & Sons, pictured with his son passing a design for a Christmas card in 1903
10999514 (right): Invoice from Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd, to Mr Frank Blackley, for the supply of one hundred greetings cards, total cost ten shillings and ten pence.

We have an eye-bogglingly varied array of historic Christmas cards in the archive representing this rich period in card publishing.  Many have arrived via our representation of the fabulously bonkers David Pearson Collection featuring designs that range from the mildly inappropriate to the unashamedly weird, most from the late 19th and early 20th century.  We may blame our modern-day sensibilities and taste for laughing at such unfathomable festive themes, but even in 1894, Gleeson White, editor of The Studio, wrote a monograph on Christmas cards in which he commented on the increasingly bizarre and inappropriate styles of card available to consumers.

“It is amusing to note the pictorial accompaniments, considered fit to illustrate the very mundane wish for a ‘A Happy Christmas’.  To accompany this prosaic and wholly carnal greeting we find, often, monsters of nightmareland, pictures of accidents dear to the farce writer, and in short, the subjects, which are in vulgar parlance weird and alarming on the one hand and distinctly uncomfortable on the other.”

Gleeson White, aesthetically sensitive, might have been particularly averse to ‘jokey’ and strangely macabre cards but there was undoubtedly a market at a time when the scale of card-sending meant that designers had to cast about for novel ideas and not all card buyers were discerning enough to prefer the worthy work of an Academician.   Nevertheless, whoever came up with murderous frogs and dead robins, cards in the shape of a hand gun or plucked turkeys lying limp and lifeless on kitchen scales, had perhaps spent rather too long at the drawing board, scraping the brandy barrel of festive ideas.  We don’t care.  Whether it’s Christmas or not, weird Christmas cards continue to be a source of great mirth and amusement at the library.  We’re just waiting for a mischievous someone to select some for a cool and off-beat Christmas card selection box.  We’ll be at the front of the queue.

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A saw on a Christmas card -- the basis of a fairly excruciating pun. Date: circa 1890s

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Little dog with a toy gun on a New Year card. circa 1890s

4  A frog murders another frog for money - a somewhat bizarre Christmas subject ! Date: circa 1880

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Designing the Jazz Age – Gordon Conway & Mary Evans at the Fashion & Textile Museum

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The Fashion and Textile Museum, a flamboyant landmark on London’s achingly hip Bermondsey Street, has been a mecca for fans of fashion history ever since it was opened by designer Zandra Rhodes in 2003. Now part of Newham College of Further Education, the hot pink and orange building, a former warehouse, does not own a permanent collection, nor is it particularly large compared to behemoths like the V&A, but it packs a punch with continually crowd-pleasing exhibitions complemented by a creative and engaging programme of talks and workshops. In the last couple of years, exhibitions have celebrated the history of swimwear, Liberty of London and Italian knitwear brand Missoni. This autumn, the museum has turned its attention to the glittering, glamorous Jazz Age combining exquisite original garments from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield with photographs of the era’s icons by American photographer James Abbé, curated by Terence Pepper.

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Not only that, we were delighted to be invited to curate a display of fashion illustrations for the exhibition, bringing an important facet of the 1920s fashion industry into focus. The pictures selected were all full-colour illustrations by American designer, Gordon Conway, who was commissioned by The Tatler and Britannia & Eve in the late 1920s to produce a series of designs, most of which were published under the simple title of ‘A Tatler Fashion’. Both magazines now form part of The Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at Mary Evans, and are an authentic reflection of the tastes and aspirations of a widening class of consumers who were keen to try new fashions and sample modern freedoms that had previously been beyond the reach of their mothers and grandmothers. Conway herself was the epitome of the stylish, modern girl – very much practising what she preached.

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Born 18 December 1894 in Cleburne, Texas, USA, Gordon Conway (1894-1956) was the only child of John Catlett Conway and Tommie Johnson. Educated in America and at finishing school in Switzerland, she showed a special talent for drawing and it was at a dinner party in 1915 that her doodles on a menu card impressed the writer Rufus Gilmore, who recommended her to Hepworth Campbell, art director of Vanity Fair. Though she lacked any prolonged formal art training, Campbell was struck by the fresh and modern linearity of her drawings. Fearing that further art lessons might dilute her distinctive style, he commissioned her to provide artwork for the magazine, where her designs, drawn from imagination, led her to be described as, ‘the artist who draws by ear.’

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Having launched her career in America, by 1921, she had travelled to Europe with her new husband, businessman, Blake Ozias, where she divided her time between London and Paris, keeping studios in both cities. Tall, red-haired, sophisticated and stylish, Gordon Conway personified the svelte flappers she drew, and courted publicity – alongside her famous pet cat, ‘Mr Fing’ – as part of an effective marketing drive that was to lead to multiple commissions during the 1920s period. She provided designs for theatre posters and programmes for productions in London and Paris; sketched for a number of well-known couturiers and, championed by Edward Huskinson, editor of The Tatler, contributed original designs to his own magazine and other titles in the same ‘Great Eight’ publishing group – Eve: The Ladies’ Pictorial and The Bystander. She also excelled in costume design for cabaret and theatre, dressing performers The Dolly Sisters, Gladys Cooper and her good friend, Dorothy Dickson among others. Towards the end of the decade she became more heavily involved in costume design for the British film industry, establishing the first autonomous in-house costume department at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation studios where, as executive dress designer she produced costumes for a succession of pictures including the futuristic ‘High Treason’ and ‘There Goes the Bride’, starring Jessie Matthews.

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Gordon Conway worked hard, refusing to ever miss deadlines set by her demanding clients, while also maintaining a hectic social life. Overwhelmed by such a schedule she suffered a heart attack in late 1933 which was to curtail her output. Plagued by ill-health, she divorced her husband and retired in 1937, returning to the USA to live with her beloved mother Tommie at Mount Sion in Caroline County, Virginia, an eighteenth century property inherited from her father’s family.

We were able to see the Gordon Conway display in place for the first time at the opening night of the exhibition, which also allowed us a sneak preview of the breath-taking clothes on display. Jazz Age is a pure delight, its disparate elements pulled together with such a deft touch by curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibition designer, Bethan Ojari that it feels cohesive and thoroughly steeped in 1920s atmosphere. Themed around the silent screen, this common thread is reflected in two opening tableaux – a cinema (complete with usherette uniform), flanked by a coven of twinkling black flapper dresses. Following this, the first display in the main area offers a mouth-watering array of evening coats and opera cloaks mirroring an illustration on the wall of theatre crowds in London’s West End, painted, coincidentally, by Fortunino Matania for The Sphere, another magazine held in the ILN archive. A set of wispy pastel coloured dresses and tennis costumes, contrast with the sexy frivolity of boudoir fashions and the sophistication of beaded and embroidered evening dresses on the upper level, while a wedding party in delicious, soft, orchard colours surround a shimmering Medieval style bridal gown. The most heavily sequinned dresses were displayed flat in glass cabinets to ward against the inevitable stretch and sagging that would occur should they be hung from a mannequin. Other than that, all clothes, which are in astoundingly good condition, are shown unconfined by glass cabinets, with each vignette scene, ranging from cocktail hour to Chinatown after dark, quietly enhanced by superb background paintings (the work of Paul Stagg and his team, carried out in Sanderson paints and strongly reminiscent of A. E. Marty or Georges Barbier in Gazette du Bon Ton). A display of occasional and dressing tables covered with period objects and artefacts provide a nostalgic narrative to the rapid social change undergone from the closing of the First World War to the dawn of the Second. Who knew Mum deodorant was already a thing in the 1920s? And presiding over all these fabric treasures is a chorus girl swinging from a suspended, glittering crescent moon. Should one’s mind wander back to the present day, a large screen playing a flickering 1920s dance routine on an endless loop reels us back in.

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The photographic element of the exhibition includes a wall of female icons from the era most captured by equally famous snappers from Cecil Beaton to Man Ray. The James Abbé exhibition in an adjoining upstairs room, brings together some of the most glamorous stars of the period from the Dolly Sisters to Dolores, Mary Pickford to Rudolf Valentino. Abbe’s carefully constructed images convey the iconic status of his sitters, and the bold, sexually-charged confidence of this new age. To browse this gallery is akin to walking into a temple of assembled gods and goddesses.

The following day, with the exhibition officially open, I went back to the museum to take part in a panel discussion alongside the other contributors, Cleo & Mark Butterfield, Terence Pepper, Jenny Abbé, and curator Dennis Nothdruft . Talking about the genesis of the library, I also explained how fashion, as a barometer of social change, was a real strength of the library and that seeing the beautiful dresses and clothes on display brought the magazines and other fashion ephemera in our archive to life. There seems to be much cross-pollination and synergy in this collaboration. Pictures by James Abbé for instance, were frequently published in The Tatler, and Mary Evans contributor Gary Chapman, expert on the Dolly Sisters, assisted with the exhibition and will giving talks as part of its accompanying lecture series. With so many connections, we are proud to be associated with the museum’s 1920s Jazz Age. Furthermore, we feel our involvement would have delighted our founders Mary and Hilary Evans, who were always keen to share their passion for history with others. We hope Gordon Conway too would have been pleased to have been part of an exhibition that celebrates this dazzling period in fashion history – and the part she played in it.

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Jazz Age at the Fashion & Textile Museum runs until 15 January 2017 http://www.ftmlondon.org/
Prints and cards featuring Gordon Conway illustrations are available to buy in the museum’s shop.

To see more Gordon Conway images click here

Colouring in the Past – a History of Colouring Books, Then & Now

As crazes go, they don’t get much bigger than the current obsession with adult colouring books. Heralded as the new absorbing, therapeutic route to de-stressing and ‘mindfulness,’ colouring in is no longer just for the kids. Johanna Basford’s colouring books of intricate natural worlds, published by Laurence King since 2013, have sold a staggering 10 million globally. Millie Marotta, Batsford’s colouring queen, is shifting in equally eye-watering quantities. Jumping on the bandwagon is the magazine industry; titles currently on the newsstand include the self-explanatory ‘Colour In’ magazine, as well as those overlapping into the self-help market with titles such as ‘Colour Calm’ and ‘Zen Colouring.’ At a recent visit to the Spring Fair in Birmingham, we witnessed colour-in T-shirts, bags, cushions and more. Type ‘colouring in’ into Amazon and you find hundreds of books with words and phrases such as ‘therapy’, ‘relaxing’ and ‘I can’t sleep.’

How did we get here? What happened? How did it suddenly become acceptable for grown-ups to spend their time colouring in? For anyone who has sat with a child and helped them colour in, it is undoubtedly a rather pleasant experience (except when the child in question takes a thick, black crayon and starts going over the lines undoing all your good work. That can actually be quite upsetting). Adult colouring books began a few years back with a smattering of tongue-in-cheek books marketed at the young and hip. Those in search of an ironic gift could give their nearest and dearest a book from Mel Elliot’s Colour Me Good range starring outline drawings of the likes of Ryan Gosling, Damian Lewis, Taylor Swift or Benedict Cumberbatch. Michael O’Mara Books were one of the first publishers to produce a more ‘mainstream’ colouring book in 2012 with the ‘The Creative Colouring Book for Grown Ups’, i.e. something you were actually meant to colour in – properly. In 2016, there are now adult colouring books on every conceivable theme from Harry Potter and Game of Thrones to a neat little pocket book featuring Liberty of London textile patterns.

And so here we are. Modern life is so stressful, we apparently need to sit down and colour in to recover from it all. But whether you view colouring in as a harmless creative activity, or a mindless (as opposed to mindful) harbinger of the fall of civilisation, the advent of colouring-in, back in the 19th century, is rooted in surprisingly similar principles.

According to Wikipedia, the concept of colouring in was first suggested as a way to democratise art and was inspired by a series of lectures by painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the works of Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and his student Friedrich Frobel. The belief was that colouring in led to spiritual edification and was a way to enhance cognitive abilities, so improving future prospects. Latching on to this idea, the first colouring book, ‘The Little Folks Painting Book’, illustrated by Kate Greenaway, was published in the United States by trailblazers McLoughlin Bros. in 1879. It’s worth mentioning that early colouring books were intended for paints and even by the 1930s, when crayons had become widely available, colouring books were produced with the aim of being suitable for either paints or crayons and continued to be called ‘painting books’ for quite some time.

We do not have ‘The Little Folks Painting Book’ at the library but we do have several other early examples, not least another Kate Greenaway illustrated book entitled simply, ‘Kate Greenaway’s Painting Book,’ published by Frederick Warne. Untouched by childish hands, this edition is in ‘mint’ condition, but rather more interesting is ‘The Merry Moments Painting Book,’ also published by Warne, where most of the outline drawings have been coloured in with crayon, the young artist carefully replicating the full printed version on the opposite page. Probably done at least half a century ago, it feels all the more charming for it. We also have a couple of beautiful colouring books by the animal artist Cecil Aldin as well as a 1930s ‘Magic Paint Book’ made by Renwick of Otley, which has clearly never come into contact with water. Tempting though it is to see if the ‘magic’ still works after all these years, we shall return it safely to the shelf without trying. Those of a certain age will also remember colouring in Christmas cards and we even have examples of these from the 1960s and 70s via the Medici Society archive.

Mary Evans Picture Library is awash with images that are begging to be coloured in though rest assured, any colouring in these days is done digitally and no crayons or coloured pencils are allowed near our collection of Victorian periodicals (some of our city panorama engravings from the Illustrated London News would keep even the most experienced colour-inner going for days). Fashion illustrations from The Tatler, domestic scenes from Girls’ Own or Good Housekeeping magazines, cartoons by Heath Robinson and H. M. Bateman not to mention hundreds of beautiful nursery illustrations by artists such as Margaret Tarrant from the Medici Society archive – all have massive colouring in potential for avid colour-inners who are looking for something with a historic or vintage flavour.

Inspired by the potential of our archive as a treasure trove of colouring in material, we felt it only fair to compile and share with you our own colouring book. It’s a little alternative, and, may we say, not for the faint-hearted, and it’s most definitely aimed at the adult market (though it’s all in the best possible taste). We should warn also warn you that, rather than calming and de-stressing, this is a colouring book to excite and stimulate the parts other colouring books don’t reach. Not for us namby-pamby vegetation, ocean worlds or furry animals, THIS is a colouring book that looks at the seriously colourful side of history. Sharpen your pencils and prepare to bring to life in full technicolour the past’s most risqué, decadent and bizarre from across the centuries. And please do share the fruits of your labour with us on our Facebook page. This is one kind of adult colouring book we think is seriously worth the effort! Click here to download your copy.