The first Christmas card was commissioned by civil servant Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Despite sales of Christmas cards slowing down in recent years, the notion of giving Christmas cards are, for some, very much part of the tradition of wishing and giving festive, seasonal cheer and best wishes to others. This year is no different, with Christmas coming soon.
We are now of course in the ‘digital age’ and even with establishment of e-cards or other digital formats, this idea of the visual design being very much part of the Christmas message from one person to another is still persistent.
In terms of physical Christmas cards, these ephemeral items are not normally items associated with the UAL Archives and Special Collections Centre. We are of course known principally for the Stanley Kubrick Archive with other collections spanning from film making, history of printing and graphic design, to sound and fine arts.
Even so, you can find a diverse collection of Christmas cards originating from a number of different provenances which range from the traditional or cute, to showcasing innovative graphic design techniques by named and unnamed designers and artists.
They can be seen as an amazing untapped resource for graphic design, communication and other creative arts disciplines. I imagine that these collections are just waiting to be consulted by designers, artists and students as sources of inspiration and creative critical thinking.
There are Christmas cards within a number of different collections in the UAL Archives. Among these is a discrete collection: Christmas Cards.
This was originally within the institutional college archive and library, but at some point in its history it was separated as it was seen as a distinct collection. Within it are wonderful examples of Christmas card designs from as early as c.1860 to more recent times.
Here is one example that should make you smile: a card with cute kittens and puppies which shows, though it has no direct relationship with Christmas per se, a growing trend of animals featuring on cards and tapping into the market of animal lovers.
One example of a named designer of Christmas cards in our collections is Edward Bawden (1903-1989), a known producer of fine art and commercial design. I am no stranger to Edward Bawden, having researched and written a blog on his work for the Festival of Britain in my previous role. It was serendipitous to work in another archive which holds his collection
Among the Edward Bawden collection, which contains examples of his design work for commercial companies, we have lovely examples of Christmas cards including ‘Snowstorm at Brighton’, which shows a fisherman in a storm with the Pavilion in the background. According to the UAL Archive catalogue, this is a wonderful example of colour linocut print and ‘the print was innovative in its use of extensive over-printing of a lighter colour on a darker first print’.
Within this format the distinct styles of the designers and artists can also be expressed, as with the playful Bawden examples.
Apart from the designs, what I love about finding ephemeral items like Christmas cards in archives and special collections is that they are also very personal items kept for permanent preservation, often addressed to individuals, showing myriad relationships, connections and networks.
Christmas cards are of course fascinating items which reflect the time they were designed and produced, and can provide fascinating insights into wider social history.
Cards, like other commercial products sold and brought, can also showcase the changing styles of graphic design or commercial art (before graphic design became a separate and distinct discipline) and, typography.
So, the next time you receive a Christmas card in digital or paper form it’s worth reflecting that it’s not just a Christmas card, but also can be a thing of beauty and so much more.