Here’s a piece of yuletide trivia: the first Christmas card was dreamed up by an art bureaucrat.
It was Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who — daunted at the thought of writing by hand piles of greetings to his friends — came up with the idea in 1843. That first card represented three generations of an early Victorian family, flanked by scenes of charitable acts, celebrating by drinking goblets of wine.
So, when you think about it, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the art world. Cole’s card was designed by a Royal Academician friend, John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903).
These days, half the cards that zing through our letter boxes were designed by old masters: nativities by Fra Angelico, snow scenes by Brueghel. Some more recent artists’ cards, on display at Tate Britain to mark the 40th anniversary of the Tate Archive (through Feb. 1), prove that modern art can be Christmassy too, if not always merry.
Grayson Perry, the transvestite and transgressive potter, chose to show a family gathering on his 2004 card. You could see it as an updated version of the original Victorian card.
The Perrys are eating their holiday meal at McDonald’s, wearing paper hats but looking bored and miserable. Grayson himself, for once not wearing female attire, clasps a mobile telephone in one hand while a French fry dangles in the other. Paper cups, crackers and hamburger buns cover the table. It isn’t cheery, but it’s funny.
The earliest card on show at the Tate is by the pioneer UK modernist Duncan Grant, a friend of Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, and dates from 1913. More Bloomsbury than holly berry, as you might expect, but almost cheery with its jolly stripey pattern (borrowed, like a lot of Grant’s ideas from Matisse). In 1955, the austere and often abstract painter Ben Nicholson was sending out a chilly image: snowdrops, snowflakes, and some angular post-cubist mugs.
A photograph chosen by Cedric Morris for his card in 1939 was bleak and wintry too. Early in that year the art school run by Morris at Dedham in Essex burned down (the reactionary painter Alfred Munnings, who disapproved of its slightly avant-garde leanings, is supposed to have driven back and forth past the blaze shouting “Hurrah!”). Morris selected a photograph of students drawing in the school’s temporary studio, a garage. One of the pupils, back right, was the teenage Lucian Freud.
Cheerless Christmas scenes such as this and Grayson Perry’s, are actually quite traditional. Seasonal meanness and misery are largely what you read about in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s almost as essential an ingredient in the modern festivity as a mound of cards (not entirely coincidentally, the first edition of the book, like Cole’s card, appeared in 1843).
Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Scrooges either. Puritanical Victorians latched onto the question of Christmas cards fast. On that original card, one of the grandchildren in the family group is being offered a sip of wine. Predictably, there were complaints about this vision of underage drinking as fostering the moral corruption of children.
The reaction in 2009 would probably be just the same. One thing about Christmas never changes: A lot of people have always hated it, cards and all.