With the festive season now upon us at Charleston – heralded by the arrival of lush poinsettia and fronds of fir in the pottery – we look to The Angelica Garnett Gift for glimpses of Christmases past. Festive scenes shine amongst the studies like a thimble stowed in plum pudding; our discoveries, however, have not been as traditional as this simile might suggest. What once stood proudly announcing the season now nestles amongst sketchbooks and drawings: Christmas cards offer unusually intimate – and often frustratingly enigmatic – insights into the relationships that coalesced in Charleston across decades.
CHA/P/2307. Recto. Christmas card, printed on card with reproduction insert. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.
CHA/P/2307. Verso. Christmas card, printed on card with reproduction insert. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.
Here ordinary seasonal wishes adorn the outer leaf, but the card opens to reveal a vibrant scene from a 16th Century Chinese painting. Although counter to conventional Christmas iconography, ‘Children playing with a Phoenix’ offers a jovial, colourful image of pleasure and play appropriate to the season. Details of the picture’s current home – the British Museum – are tucked alongside other defining features in the top left corner. Location in mind, one might imagine Bloomsbury regular – and Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum – Dr. Arthur Waley posting such scenes to his peers. Supplementing the ‘Best Wishes’ of the card with their own ‘Love and Kisses’ is surprisingly not Waley, but Yvonne Kapp. Quentin Bell described Kapp as a ‘magnificently active’ political advocate and writer, who befriended him despite frequently (and one suspects rather teasingly) denouncing him as a ‘bourgeois social democrat’. Later a biographer of Eleanor Marx, Kapp’s shying away from more overt Christian symbolism could be explicable through this particular intellectual perspective.
A rather different bird graces this more traditional 1967 Christmas card sent from Deidre Connolly to Duncan Grant. While the phoenix frolics with infant revellers, a robin is perched on and encircled by bright graphic swirls of poppy-like stalks.
CHA/E/97 Christmas card to Duncan Grant from Deidre Connolly, circa 1967. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.
Decorations may be stored and reused over the years, but one rarely holds on to Christmas cards; their presence in the gift thus always comes as a welcome surprise. Might they hold sentimental value, or simply have acquired longevity by accident? A card could be easily bundled into a drawer alongside more artistic endeavours. Yet some, perhaps, offer as much aesthetic satisfaction as any of their drawings or prints.
CHA/E/56 Christmas card, ‘Madonna and Child’ by Giovanni Bellini, from Denys and Cynthia Sutton, circa 1972. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.
Admirers of Bellini’s work throughout their artistic careers, this sumptuous reproduction not only affirms a friendship, but reaffirms a sense of artistic identity.
Regardless of how they came to reside in the gift, one cannot help finding these private tokens of affection captivating, looking for traces of emotion and intimacy in unfamiliar hands.