Andrew Lambirth

The art of Christmas

<em>Andrew Lambirth</em> celebrates the cards he has received over the years from his artist friend

The art of Christmas
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One of the most important and enjoyable Christmas decorations in our house is the profusion of Christmas cards. I am fortunate to number quite a few artists among my friends, and a good percentage of them make and send their own Christmas cards. Most of these tend to the secular and celebratory, but the range of image and technique is what really stands out. Literally, in the case of the sculptor Ann Christopher (born 1947), who makes wonderful little constructions of flexed and frayed silver card often decorated with stars, which balance three-dimensionally on the mantelpiece, like geometric Christmas trees. Other artists send small paintings — the abstract painter Edwina Leapman (born 1931) does exquisite stripe watercolours, the landscape painter David Tress (born 1955) sends tough charcoal snow scenes or light on winter gorse painted in acrylic and mixed media — and when these generous gifts turn up, it really feels as if Christmas has begun.

I have of course kept all these unique Christmas cards, which are now beginning to form quite a substantial collection. Among the most remarkable is the sequence from Euan Uglow (1932–2000), which I received during the last ten years of his life. I didn’t know him earlier when he sent etchings or a plaster Christmas pudding, or a miniature green felt Christmas tree sitting on a domed lead base, but I did receive images of various ladies, usually printed in linocut with collaged additions. (These might include halved pistachio shells for breasts or a red felt figure-hugging dress.) One year there was a linocut angel with sycamore seed wings, another year a figure fashioned entirely from dried rosemary and split lentils. In 1989 he sent a lino-cut of two camels in the desert printed on dark grey sandpaper, sprayed with gold and green. Every December Uglow produced about 300 of these highly individual and much-prized Christmas cards. One autumn he collected and dried hundreds of gingko leaves from the tree at University College and painted a head on each one. Even more memorably, his 1993 ‘card’ was a cast lead Key of Life with a tie-on label stamped in red with ‘Happy Christmas love Euan’, so you’d know who sent it. But who else would have taken such trouble?

By contrast, his friend Craigie Aitchison (1926–2009) favoured bought cards of varying degrees of kitsch attractiveness, and was violently against sending reproductions of his own work, even when given packets of Christmas cards decorated with his paintings. Their contemporary Jeffery Camp (born 1923) used to print large and elaborate linocut Christmas cards in the 1960s, but has only occasionally sent any kind of festive greeting in recent years; though when he does, it is a generous gift, such as a drawing and a tiny oil painting mounted together on black card. John Craxton (1922–2009) used to send printed images with hand colouring, often enhanced with terrible puns, both visual and verbal.

Other artists make prints that can be more easily reproduced. John McLean (born 1939), a witty and inventive painter, used to make potato prints, the most simple and primitive of printing methods, still favoured by artists who don’t mind the nursery implications of the medium. I have an unsteady caravanserai of overlapping camels that McLean sent one year, but his Christmas card list has grown so extensive that he now designs a rubber stamp each year and prints his cards from that. Rose Hilton (born 1931) makes her own linocuts in a single bright colour, with perhaps some hand-colouring or collage additions, or a scatter of glitter or gold stars. Her vibrant style adapts well to the planar simplicities of lino, but the hand-colouring and extras make all the difference.

Roland Collins, who celebrated his 94th birthday recently, has been sending home-produced Christmas cards for the past 60 years. Until very recently these were all designed and printed by himself (with the assistance of his wife Connie) by the silkscreen method. Sadly this particular cottage industry has ground to a halt, not so much because of Collins’s advancing years, but because of the increased difficulty in obtaining materials. This year the card he has designed goes to a local printer, but at least his large circle of friends and acquaintances will receive a characteristic Collins image. In years past, many of his cards featured his beloved poodles and his former house in Percy Street, Fitzrovia. What will the post bring this December?

Every year for the past 15 winters I have collaborated with a favourite artist on a Christmas card: an image is specially made or selected and I write a poem in response to it. The whole thing is printed in a limited edition and sent to friends. This year my collaborator is the painter Derek Balmer (born 1934), who has contributed a beautiful and surprisingly brightly coloured image called ‘First Snow’. Past collaborators have included Ian Welsh, Maggi Hambling, Nigel Hall, John Hoyland and Gillian Ayres, but the one who dealt most imaginatively with the card was Julian Perry (born 1960). He had a few spare copies left unsent, and decided to re-work the image in a series of variations. The reproduced painting had featured coppicing in a birch wood with a raised wooden path running through it. Perry’s over-paintings included a lunar landscape, a sandy beach, a bluebell wood, a picture gallery (showing only a framed detail of his original picture) and a camp Christmas scene with glitter and robins. Someday I’ll have to frame the whole lot together...

Rigby Graham (born 1931) is another artist with an unbroken sequence of more than 50 years’ cards behind him. A landscape painter in the English topographical tradition, he has been a staunch illustrator of books and producer of beautiful limited-edition pamphlets and prints. For Christmas he has tended to make cards that reflect his landscape interests, though the earlier lino-cuts from the 1950s feature more traditional religious subjects such as the Three Kings or the Dove of Peace. Over the years he has sent a great variety of Christmas greetings publications, many of them woodcuts, and some including quite substantial pamphlets on the history of the card’s subject. In 2003, Graham stopped making special Christmas cards, but last year a fascinating book was published by The Landseer Press on his past Christmas productions, which is a must for admirers of this artist or the genre.

I write this in early December, and cards are only just beginning to trickle in. I hope I will receive as splendid a postbag as in past years, and look forward to the possibility of etchings from Victoria Achache (born 1952) and David Shutt (born 1945), maybe a hand-coloured print from Mick Rooney (born 1944) or a mazy cut-and-collaged image from Jack Milroy (born 1938). And with luck the annual splurge of bold colour and dancing rhythm from Bert Irvin (born 1922) whose Christmas screenprints liven up many an arty sitting-room around the country. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the cards...