Saturday, 5 December 2015



During the holiday season our country’s cherished artists scaled it down a notch to make small but memorable seasonal imagery for Christmas greetings that could be enjoyed by many people. In the colder winter months artists, such as the Group of Seven members and their contemporaries, spent time back in their studios selecting their favorite panel sketches of the year in order to make large-scale masterpieces on canvas. However, it appears that for the holidays they always made time for the more intimate art of Christmas card designing. This included hand-done cards for friends and family and designs for commercial cards as part of their jobs as graphic designers. These lovely little works came in varying printmaking techniques such as lithographs, silkscreens, linocuts, and woodblocks. Some are one-offs and might include hand-tinted highlights and others were made to sell in stores in series.

Mary Reid Wrinch Wyehwood Cardinals silkscreen printed Christmas card available at Masters Gallery Vancouver

Masters Gallery Vancouver held a printmaking exhibition this December, called Masters in Printmaking, which featured a handful of Christmas cards and designs. They have been very popular and well admired. Concurrently The McMichael Collection of Canadian Art in Kleinberg, Ontario has a Christmas card themed show derived from their own holdings and archives, This House was Made for Christmas. In this exhibition, and in our Vancouver show, there are some silkscreen printed Christmas cards. This comes in the wake of a Sampson-Matthews silkscreen exhibition in Masters Gallery Calgary in November to coincide with the launch of a book about Sampson-Matthews prints, Art For War and Peace. These all seemed like good reasons to focus this year’s holiday season blog on Canadian artists and their Christmas cards. Rous & Mann, Sampson-Matthews, and W. Coutts & Co. are a few of the companies that joined with our country’s greatest artists of the 20th century to make artistic Christmas cards.

JW Beatty silkscreen print of the Coutts Canadian Artist Series Christmas Cards

An AJ Casson design for a Christmas card in the McMichael Christmas Card show 2015

An AJ Casson Christmas card available at Masters Gallery Vancouver)

An AY Jackson silkscreen print of the Coutts Canadian Artist Series Christmas Cards

A Carl Schaeffer ink design for a Christmas card at the National Gallery of Canada

The custom of Christmas card giving began in the United Kingdom n the 1840s. Improved printing techniques throughout that century allowed for the Christmas card to become much more widespread by the 1860s. Cards also appeared sporadically in the late 1840s in America, but were expensive. An entrepreneurial printer mass produced cards at an affordable rate, and card giving took off late 1870s on this continent. By 1900 Christmas cards were popular all over Europe as well.

Three examples of Victorian (19th century) Christmas cards

An example of an e-card (21st century) for sending by email

By the early 20th century the Christmas card had become a mainstay tradition of the holiday season in those countries celebrating Christmas around the World. Although it appeared that email greeting cards might threaten the tradition of card giving a little bit, the custom of exchanging well-designed holiday cards has prevailed into the 21st century. There are now a handful of large chain stores devoted to selling high-end designer cards. It even seems as though there is a bit of a nostalgic resurgence of cards having the very vintage feel that harks back to the early card design and style. Throughout the 20th century, artists made cards that typically reflected their own style of artwork (though not always when working with larger graphic design firms). It is therefore a lovely way of seeing some renowned artists works on a smaller scale. For collectors these cards are increasingly popular and hard to come by. The following examples were available for sale in our Masters of Printmaking show.

Three AY Jackson Christmas cards from the Rous & Mann Canadian Artists series in the 1920s -Masters Gallery Vancouver

A hand-tinted Christmas Card by AY Jackson sold at Masters Gallery Vancouver

Sampson-Matthews, W. Coutts & Co., and other printing firms teamed up with Canadian artists to create Christmas cards, just as they did with the same artists for larger projects to promote Canadian art with the National Gallery. A.Y. Jackson was a particularly staunch supporter of organizing Christmas card creations with printing firms.The firm Rous & Mann produced a series of Christmas cards called the ‘Canadian Artists Series’ between 1923 and 1929. Household names like AY Jackson, AJ Casson, JW Beatty, Mabel Lockerby, LL Fitzgerald, Anne Savage, Sarah Robertson, Nora Collyer, Clarence Gagnon, Kathleen Morris, Ethel Seath, Paul Caron, Frederick Varley, LAC Panton, and likely more were involved. Then in the early 1930s Jackson approached William Coutts regarding submitting Christmas card designs to continue the tradition of promoting Canadian artists. From this meeting the Canada Painters Series of Christmas cards was set. With the designs of 26 known artists whom also had previously been involved as mentioned above, Coutts launched his series of just under 80 silkscreen Christmas card designs. Coutts pulled each silkscreen design himself by hand, and each therefore has an individual look. Frank Carmichael helped supervise this. The cards were stocked in stores, but were not particularly successful at first launch because the Depression Era had set in and prices were therefore to high for the average buyers. Incidentally, original Coutts 1931 silkscreen card designs are now desirable to collectors.

J. Ernest Sampson (of Sampson-Matthews) Cutting Down the Christmas Tree (1931) silkscreen print of the Coutts Canadian Artist Series Christmas Cards sold at Masters Gallery Vancouver

William Coutts did not give up, and went to the United States to meet with the Halls, owners of what became the Hallmark Co. in 1932. They agreed to take on a Canadian line of artists Christmas cards, an institution that continued with Hallmark until the 1980s. Hallmark in fact bought shares in W. Coutts & Co. and bought the whole company in the 1940s. Although Coutts’ 1931 silkscreens were unique and the medium attractive, likely for ease and practicality Hallmark used lithography after 1931. There have been a handful of exhibitions that have featured the Coutts series since, including a show and sale at Masters Gallery in Calgary in 2001.

Hopefully the seasonal imagery of these precious little greeting cards fills you with a bit of holiday cheer. Season’s greetings from all of us at Masters Gallery.