Magazine article The Spectator

Season's Greetings

Magazine article The Spectator

Season's Greetings

Article excerpt

My recollections of Christmas Past are dominated by the fabrication of the family card. It was one of my father's principles that Christmas was a family event and that any cards sent out should be created within the family. It was quite wrong to buy one. Happily he was an artist of the old-fashioned sort, skilled at all the various methods of reproduction - etching and drypoint, engraving, photogravure, lithography and various abstruse methods of printmaking. Indeed he taught them at his art school. Lithography was his favourite because it had a softness and fidelity to nature and avoided the harsh line of the other reproductive processes.

We sent out around 150 cards each year, and by the end of November my father had drawn the master card on the stone. This was almost invariably a version of the crib scene, always in black and white, and had to be painted. Watercolour was applied by hand, and thus done by one of my two sisters, Clare and Elfride. From the age of five, I was allowed to help, under close supervision. Various bits of the design had to be done in gold or silver, and this was difficult work I was not allowed to do. The whole house was turned upside down during this process, and resembled a monastic scriptorium in the Middle Ages, with intent figures bent over their work, surrounded by pots of paint and cards in various stages of completion. All had to be finished for 17 December, when the cards were put into their envelopes and addressed, then carried in triumph to the big red postbox near the clock tower of the park, regarded as a 'safe' postbox. These cards, when complete, were real works of art, and I wonder if any have survived. The recipients must be long dead.

I often feel guilty that I have not carried on this tradition. I paint individual birthday cards, chiefly for children but also for a number for grown-ups. I must do about 50 a year, each adapted to the taste or character of the person who receives them. I am not capable of doing lithographs or using any other process for mass production. So we have to buy them. There are a number of places which specialise in good reproductions, my favourite being Holy Trinity Church at the bottom of Sloane Street, near the Square. What I like are the unusual rather than the familiar, the products of pernickety medieval or Renaissance artists who refuse to fit into the regular archetypes but stick to the general scheme.

Thus I have one this year showing Mary in bed under a beautiful scarlet bedspread, reading a book, while Joseph minds the baby. This has a modern touch, does it not?

For Mary is clearly the focus of the picture, arousing the attention of the two kings, while Joseph and the Christ-child are tucked away in a corner, mere appendages. What book is she reading? Impossible to tell, but thick and formidable. No pictures. Evidently a learned lady, anxious to get her husband accustomed to role-reversal. This audacious treatment is from a Flemish 15th-century Book of Hours in the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge. But the artist is unknown.

I also like a view of the three kings which shows one of them raising his crown, a round red dome with a white frill, in a stately salute.

Actually one of the three is not a king but a queen, with long golden hair and a black velvet hat under her crown. Three musicians accompany them, and the artist is one of the German Nazarenes, Friedrich Overbeck. …

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