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Joyful tidings: 175 years of Christmas cards

Christmas

Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art, traces the 175-year history of the first seasonal greeting card.

In 1843 Henry Cole, director of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), devised the world’s first Christmas card. The painter John Callcott Horsley designed it, and the card, measuring 83 by 127 millimetres, was printed lithographically and hand-coloured.

Christmas cards speedily became popular. They took texts from various sources: most commonly the Bible, but also Burns, Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson and other major writers. Traditional themes were either religious or Dickensian. Later cards sometimes reflected contemporary events, most notably cards alluding to patriotism during the First World War.

Today, we are familiar with cards personalised for companies and institutions. Indeed, the University of London (UoL) sends an annual card, usually showing an image from material held at Senate House Library. Last year, as it looked forward to 2018 as the 150th anniversary of the admission of women, the card featured a room at College Hall, the university’s first residential college for women.

For 20th-century private presses, producing Christmas cards gave printers and publishers an opportunity to demonstrate their skill and advertise their work. They were usually printed from blocks designed for other purposes.

Eminent illustrators of private press books, such as Agnes Miller Parker, Robert Gibbings, and John Buckland Wright, were involved in producing cards, which might be hand-coloured, or be printed in colour from several blocks. When retailed they could be expensive. One by Agnes Miller Parker for the Raven Press, cost £1.7s for a pack of twelve cards in 1935, equivalent to about £70 today. Private presses represented in the holdings of Senate House Library, which produced Christmas cards include Curwen, Perpetua, Rampant Lions, St Dominic’s, Raven and Stanbrook Abbey.

Christmas

Featured here (left) is a Christmas card from 1930 from the Gregynog Press, administered by the sisters Margaret and Gwendoline Davies from their home in Powys, Wales from 1922 until 1941. A 1922 card with a wood engraving portraying their house, was the Press’s first ever piece of printing. Subsequently they produced at least one card every year until 1938 and sent them to customers, friends and well-wishers. Most of them sported wood engravings, whether press devices, initials, or fully blown illustrations, with some printed in red and black. Several were in blue-grey covers. Like the Press’s books, the cards tended to be printed in Perpetua or Bembo type, either on handmade paper or more seldom, on Japanese vellum.

Just as some of the Press’s books were in Welsh, so were a couple of its Christmas cards. These were both trailblazers in another way. The card for 1926, which reproduced verses from the Christmas story narrated by Luke (Luke 2:6-21) in Welsh from the Bishop Morgan Bible, was the first piece of fine non-book printing to emanate from the Gregynog Press. One of the cards for 1935, with its setting of an old Welsh carol, used a new music type and a new printing type, barely used thereafter.

Texts were a mixture of the canonical and the modern. Alongside the Bible (1926 and 1938), traditional texts were taken from Robert Herrick (1929), Ben Jonson’s ‘Hymn on the Nativity of my Saviour’ (1927), Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1928), Edmund Spenser’s ‘Hymn to Eternal Love’ (1931), Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (1937), and, more obscurely, from Ellis Wynne (1671–1734), in Welsh and English (1922). Later authors included John Drinkwater (1931), G K Chesterton (1936), Lascelles Abercrombie (1932) and, youngest of all, Helen Waddell (1935).

The Press printed three cards in 1930, all on Japanese vellum. This (below) is one of two cards (identical except for the printed greeting), which was from ‘the Misses Davies’ in one form and from ‘the Gregynog Press’ in the other. The lines of poetry are from ‘Testament of Beauty’, by Robert Bridges (1844–1930), and the wood engravings are by Blair Hughes-Stanton, a major figure in the 20th-century revival of English wood engraving and a co-director of the Gregynog Press from 1930 until 1933.

Christmas

Author: Davies, Gwendoline Elizabeth, ca. 1882-1951. Title Christmas greetings. Greetings and best wishes for Christmas and the New Year, from the Misses Davies, Gregynog, 1930. ImprintGregynog [ie Newtown, Wales]: G. and M. Davies, 1930. Descript.1 folded sheet ; 26 cm.

The Gregynog Press is one of the best-represented presses in Senate House Library, thanks to the gift by Professor Sir David Hughes Parry (1893–1973) of a full set of specially bound Gregynog Press books in 1966. Christmas cards were a separate acquisition.

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