Collection of the week: David Pearson

Is it too early to start talking about Christmas? If you like to plan in advance, then we think this week's chosen collection will put you in a festive frame of mind.

We have an eye-bogglingly varied array of historic Christmas and New Year cards in the archive representing the rich period in card publishing from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. The majority of these have arrived via our representation of the fabulously bonkers David Pearson Collection. Any student of 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. It triggered a trend now as integral to Christmas as trees, tinsel and mince pieces, and David's unique collection comprises thousands of original cards ranging from the gorgeously embellished to the mildly inappropriate and unashamedly weird. Beyond Christmas, his collecting has also extended to Easter, Valentines and various unusual bits and pieces of ephemera such as scraps and bills. Many exhibit the sophistication of the card-making art at the time with paper lace, pop-ups, cut outs and three-dimensional effects all in evidence.

To modern tastes, some of the themes seem unfathomable, but even in 1894, Gleeson White, editor of the prestigious art magazine, 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. Whether it's Christmas or not, weird cards continue to be a source of great mirth and merriment at the library.

There are 6000 images in the David Pearson Collection. We hope this selection of edited highlights raises a few eyebrows - and a few smiles.

Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd.  59 Tranquil Vale  Blackheath  London  SE3 0BS. United Kingdom.
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