Paintings in the post

Hundreds of Christmas cards created by Britain's best artists are kept in the Tate archive. Now, for the first time, these first-class designs are available to buy
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Choosing the perfect Christmas card can be difficult. An expensive selection for a few, or bumper packs for all? Should they be festive, artily highbrow, or mildly satirical?

Perhaps the ideal solution is to make your own: personal, creative, recession friendly. In theory. In reality, that's beyond the talents of many of us. Happily, the tradition of making your own has been maintained by professional artists – and the Tate has preserved many of these miniature artworks in its large archive, itself forty years old this year.

From Duncan Grant's 1913 Omega Workshops-style Christmas card, to Grayson Perry's family snap of a festive meal in McDonald's (2004), the archive has almost a hundred years' worth of cards that reveal artists' personal takes on the Christmas spirit. Often abstract or tongue-in-cheek, they're low on glitter snow, but high on hand-drawn charm.

This year will see a few of the archive's treasures popping through letterboxes again. For the first time, two cards are available to buy: Ernest Michael Dinkel's colourful elephant print, The Magi (1982), and Joseph Winkelman's 1996 Christmas Party. And if you're lucky, you'll receive a Peter Lanyon hand-painted card from 1961: Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, has chosen that from the archive to be reprinted as his own seasonal greeting. An abstract and evocative image of St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, it's not entirely traditional, but is certainly striking – and, as Serota points out, will help spread awareness of the British artist. "My cards go out to friends, the Tate's benefactors and artists we have worked with, along with directors of other museums across the world," he says.

Adrian Glew, Tate archivist, explains that most of the more than 500 cards come from private collections handed over for safe keeping, including those of former Tate directors and curators who've made it on to artists' Christmas lists. "It's quite inspiring for people considering making handmade cards," he says. "The 1950s and 1960s were the highpoint ... nowadays people are more likely to use computers."

From the entirely unseasonal – such as the 1939 snap of Lucian Freud painting in a garage, used by East Anglia School of Art as its greeting card – to John Nash's Christmas cartoons or Nigel Henderson's unsentimental interpretation of seasonal bounty, the Tate archive offers a glimpse of another way to say "Merry Christmas".

READER OFFER Get 10 per cent off at the Tate Online Shop ( with code Independent10% until 10 Dec; make an appointment to view archive at