Laura Freeman Laura Freeman

The art of the Christmas card

A new show at Pallant House Gallery suggests the demise of the Christmas card has been greatly exaggerated

A hand-coloured winter thrush rings the round robin changes: 'Fieldfare', 2020, by Mark Hearld. Image: © Mark Hearld

It’s the thin end of the wedge, the slippery slope, the beginning of the end of a civilised Christmas. It is the first week of December and I still haven’t started my cards. My friend Charlotte was at it in October. She signed up for a lino-cutting class, cut holly boughs and robin redbreasts and printed her own cards. She sent me photos of the fruits (berries?) of her labours and very merry they were, too.

Usually, I am a Charlotte. By November, I have made cards, addressed envelopes, applied thumbs to 80 stamps. But after an illness in the autumn, I’m feeling as uncreative as a turkey. Could I cheat and send emails with a pious little homily about how, for the sake of the planet, I’m forgoing paper cards this year? But if the stalwart Charlottes (and formerly Lauras) of the world don’t keep it up, who will?

Has the death of the Christmas card been greatly exaggerated?

The first commercial Christmas card was produced in Britain in 1843, two years after the creation of the penny post. Henry Cole, reformer of the Post Office and later first director of the V&A, commissioned the card from the artist John Callcott Horsley and put it on sale at a shilling. It is a scene of half-measures cheer, more prim than Pickwickian. A family sip at their wine in an arbour of ivy. On either side are vignettes of Good Deeds. Cole’s card was a flop, but it trod down the snow for others. Christmas cards got going in America in around 1850 and really took off when Louis Prang, a German immigrant, started producing cards with printed messages, spangles, fringes, lace, feathers and assorted tassels and tinsels.

Every year, there are gripes in the broadsheet letters pages about how there is too much jollity and not enough holiness in the cards on the doormat, but from their earliest days Christmas cards tended more to snowflakes and sleighbells, less to wise men, shepherds, the ox and the ass.

Today, about a billion Christmas cards are sent in the UK each year. Last year’s tiers and lockdowns gave cards a boost. Has the death of the Christmas card been greatly exaggerated?

Midwinter would certainly be bleaker without a mantelpiece settling of Hiroshige frosts, National Gallery nativities and assorted jaunty Santas, snowmen, stockings. The best stay up till spring. I’ve still got an Eric Ravilious wreath card from last year.

There’s genetic guilt in all this. The average sender posts 16 cards, but the average sender isn’t my mother. Every advent since I can remember, her study has been white with envelope snowdrifts. She doesn’t make her own, but she does buy a good hundred from gallery giftshops.

How to get my ho-ho-ho mojo back? In their print room, Pallant House in Chichester have mounted an exhibition, Christmas Greetings by Modern British Artists. Here are more than a hundred offerings from Edward Bawden, Ben Nicholson, John Piper and John Craxton. There is a marvellous David Jones engraving of a candlelit mass and Emily Sutton’s cat that got the Christmas pud. Ed Kluz, whose architectural drawings lean towards the gothic (follow him on Instagram), gives us a lovely, lonely city church with a Star of Bethlehem above. Ben Nicholson’s Christmas card of 1939 is a marbled, modernist grid with coolly geometric snowballs, while Gary Hume, once a YBA, moulds a snowman of minimal spheres. Barnett Freedman goes wassailing in his lithographic Christmas card of 1953, Edward Bawden’s linocut lion rampages through the presents and Mark Hearld’s hand-coloured winter thrush rings the round robin changes. There’s a bookmark-shaped Christmas card by Enid Marx wishing recipients not Merry Christmas, but a Happy New Year. Perhaps she was running even later than I am.

The trouble with handmade cards, whether by artist or amateur, is that they set a bar. You can’t painstakingly paint and ink one year, then do Clintons the next. I rang The Spectator’s cartoonist Michael Heath to ask what he does. Heath tells me he both rather dreads and derides Christmas. His parents didn’t much celebrate the day itself and, in any case, he was a war child and there wasn’t much to celebrate or much food or drink to celebrate with. I ask, thinking I know the answer, what he thinks of the imagery of Victorian decoupage: the moppets with mufflers, the ice-skating tots, the kittens playing Blind Man’s Bluff. Heath sets me right. ‘I love the Victorian decoupage tradition. That’s when Christmas gets going. I like that period — plum puddings and Tiny Tim and God Bless us, every one. I wouldn’t mess around with that.’ Heath always ‘goes down the funny road’ when he can, though ‘funny is a dangerous business’. Once, when asked to design a Christmas card for the shop of a friend of a friend he found a photograph of a corpse in a morgue with a tag on its toe with a name. Heath replaced the name with ‘Happy Christmas’ and the shop was duly appalled.

Christmas Greetings by Modern British Artists is at Pallant House Gallery until 6 January.