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The merry mania of Christmas cards

4 December 2020

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Scrooge that he is, Rakewell tends to shirk the merry business of scribbling Christmas cards to his nearest, his dearest, and several hundred of his business contacts. But this year, what with all the cancelled Christmas parties and limited festive cheer, your correspondent has fitted a new nib to his fountain pen, stocked up on stamps and is preparing to roll up his sleeves to scrawl seasonal greetings to all and sundry. Especially anyone who sends him a card first, that is.

What Rakewell can’t stretch to, alas, is a copy of the first commercially printed Christmas card – two of which are up for sale this month, including an example at Christie’s which carries an estimate of £5,000–£8,000. The card was commissioned by Henry Cole, who would later found the South Kensington Museum. It shows a family tucking into plum pudding and toasting an absent friend; one Victorian scamp is shown surreptitiously necking a glass of wine, a detail that led to criticism from the party poopers at the Temperance Society.

As far as receiving cards goes, your correspondent is firmly of the belief that the more idiosyncratic the better. Anything that makes him think twice about tossing it into the recycling come January has his approval. To stash or trash is the ultimatum that all ephemera eventually pose, after all.

Rakewell’s hoarding doesn’t go as far as that of Queen Mary, who kept Christmas cards in albums that are now in the British Museum; or of the North London stationer Jonathan King, who in the 19th century put together a collection of many thousands of greetings cards (he measured his collection by the ton; hundreds of his Valentine’s Day cards are now held by the Museum of London). But send Rakewell a Christmas card of a mouse riding a lobster, and you have his word that it will be framed by Twelfth Night.

Christmas card (c. 1880). Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.