When we think of Christmas cards, we usually picture images of holly, robins, angels, and candles, or snow-covered cottages with sledging children, Nativity scenes with visiting Wise Men, or benevolent Santas with sacks full of presents. Very rarely, I imagine, do we picture a summer woodland scene features lounging female figures in classical dress and a lyre-playing cherub [see figure 1]. This classical scene, however, featured on one of the most successful Christmas cards of the 1882 holiday season.
While the traditional images that grace contemporary Christmas cards have always been popular decorative motifs, the Victorian Christmas card industry also embraced a much more varied and experimental set of design practices. Some nineteenth-century innovations are fairly familiar to us, such as pop-up cards or mechanical movement cards where a pull-tab makes an image move. Other novelties may seem somewhat more alien. There were shaped cards that imitated a range of items such as ladies’ gloves, a fan, luggage tags, slices of bacon, and extracted teeth, and cards that were decorated with a profusion of added-on materials such as samples of lace, bits of sparkling glass, grass, seaweed, dried flowers, velvet, and cigar ends. There were scented cards, cards which were painted on ivory tablets, and cards that included packets of needles, a needlework design, and piece of decorative textile that could be used as the centrepiece of any number of needlework creations from d’oyleys and table mats to cushions and footstools.
The eclecticism and oddity of these objects was partly a consequence of the greeting card industry’s attempts to attract more interest in what was a fairly new and still developing industry. Though Christmas cards are now an intrinsic and almost mundane convention of the Christmas season, the Christmas card was an innovation of the Victorian publishing industry. The first card was designed in 1843 by the artist John Callcott Horsley at the request of Henry Cole, the great Victorian champion of the industrial arts who was largely responsible for both the building of Victoria and Albert Museum and the creation of the Penny Post [see figure 2]. And it was only in the 1870s that the exchange of Christmas cards became a more common activity as technological developments in industrial colour printing, known as chromolithography, made elaborate, highly-coloured images easier and cheaper to produce.
The beauty and vibrancy of a card such as “A Dream of Patience” was made possible by such industrial developments, but the design of such a card, which had more in common with the conventions of fine and decorative art rather than holiday sentiment, was driven by other factors. “A Dream of Patience” was created, like many other decorative objects in the 1880s, to satisfy increasing consumer demands for everyday items produced the decorate the “House Beautiful,” the Aesthetic Movement’s concept of interior design that sought to transform the middle-class Victorian interior into a haven of beauty and good taste.
Such aesthetic cards [see figure 3] present themselves as beautiful objects, to be appreciated as much for their artistic merit as for their function in spreading seasonal good wishes. But can a Christmas card be considered an example of fine art? Card publishers certainly tried to draw such comparisons. The publisher Raphael Tuck & Sons, for instance, created a number of card series that directly referenced the practices and conventions of fine art, such as a “Royal Academy” series, which featured only the designs of artists who were members of the Royal Academy, and an “Easel Series,” in which the card came with its own papier-mâché easel so that it could be elegantly and appropriately displayed on a mantelpiece.
Raphael Tuck was also the first publisher to hold a design competition which culminated in November 1880 in an exhibition in which 925 drawings for Christmas cards were shown for ten days at the Dudley Gallery. The first prize winner, Alice Squire, was awarded £100, and her design was commissioned for the next holiday season [see figure 4]. Other publishers soon followed suit with bigger and better competitions in the years that followed.
Whether or not such cards could ever be considered as examples of fine art, throughout the 1880s they circulated widely and among all classes as beautiful decorative objects that fulfilled the Aesthetic Movement’s aspiration to bring beauty to the masses. Writing in the 1890s, the artist and editor of the art magazine The Studio, Gleeson White, pictured the ‘bewildered breakfast tables in the suburbs, in the year of grace 1884’ who opened their Christmas cards only to be taught lessons in art. Such cards circulated, as Christmas cards do now, in their millions, and in doing so they attempted to bring with them into the wider public domain lessons in art that sought to inform the average, middle-class consumer of the aesthetic value of the decorative arts, teaching bewildered bourgeois suburbians how to discriminate and how to find beauty in even the humblest of everyday objects.