They first appeared in 1843, when the young Sir Henry Cole found himself too busy to write letters of seasonal greeting to his friends. Involved in the development of the railway system, the Penny Post, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the building of the Albert Memorial, the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cole also wrote children's books and, in a marriage of industry, invention and haste, became the father of the Christmas card.
Designed by the painter John Callcott, 1,000 copies of the first card were published by Cole's firm the Felix Summerly Home Treasury - those he did not use being sold for a shilling. The card (pictured right) shows typical Christmas cheer and charity: a trellised triptych framing a family feast and side panels depicting donations to the poor (traditionally given on Boxing Day). The original is being shown at the V & A's current exhibition, '150 years of the Christmas Card', which charts its history to the present day.
Mass production started in the 1860s with designs vying for novelty every year. There are cards with borders cut in exquisite lace filigree, with pleated silk edging, gilded frames, embossed, enamelled, perfume-padded (from the Rimmel Perfume Co.), pop-up cards, collages, even one with a tiny removable fan. George Robert Sims (author of the ballad Christmas Day in the Workhouse) made a Christmas card to celebrate his honeymoon across the Atlantic in 1901; George Sprod sent his as a Christmas portrait in pencil, from Prisoner of War Camp, Singapore, 1943.
Cards by Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, Arthur Rackham, John Nash, Joan Miro, and even Issey Miyake are on display alongside elegant hotel greetings from Claridges and the Berkeley and an early example of the family photo card 'from the Vogenthalers' c 1950. The Sixties and Seventies see Op Art and Conceptual cards. More recent are the eco-friendly cards 'Snow people against global warming' in addition to the humourous.
The photographer Angus McBean spent over 30 years sending idiosyncratic and inventive pictures at Christmas. He wrote 'most of my photography is reasonably straight, but it was with my Christmas cards that I let myself go. . .'. For 1958 he set a classical bust in a desert with free-standing columns. Called This must be Battersea Park, there is, in the foreground, a tiny couple taking a stroll.
Tiny figures also appear on this year's Christmas stamps, with Quentin Blake's spidery designs that include Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Prize Turkey from A Christmas Carol. The Royal Mail commissioned them to celebrate 150 years of Dickens' classic tale, and for that matter, over 150 years of the postal service. From 1,000 cards in 1843, the Post Office expects, this year, to handle around 1.6 billion Christmas greetings. But with the greetings fax looming on the horizon, 1993 may well turn out to be the Christmas card's swan- song.
'150 Years of the Christmas Card' 12-5.50pm Mon. 10am-5.50pm Tue-Sat to 9 Jan 1994. Level 3, V & A, Cromwell Rd, London SW7 (071-938 8500)
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