Is this the birthplace of the Christmas card?

Images of nativity scenes, snowmen and red-breasted robins regularly decorate Christmas cards, but where did the tradition for sending illustrated seasons greetings first begin?

One luxury hotel in Torquay, Devon, claims to be at the root of the story, thanks to an artistic founder with a passion for painting.

How did it all begin?

(Orestone Manor/PA) 

In 1843, a batch of 1,000 Christmas cards were designed by Sir John Callcott Horsley, founder of Orestone Manor. An artist, he built his property overlooking Lyme Bay to take advantage of the beautiful views.

It was here, on the hotel’s lawn, that he famously painted a picture of his brother-in-law, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery today.

The idea for the Christmas card came from Horsley’s pal,  Sir Henry Cole, who was the first Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The central image of the card featured a family enjoying a Christmas feast, and at the centre, wealthy people were shown helping the poor. Look out for the details of a child sipping wine, which caused controversy at the time.

(Orestone Manor/PA)

Back then, the cards sold for one shilling (£0.05p) each, but find one today and you could be singing Merry Christmas all the way to the bank. There are thought to be 18 still in existence, with the last one going for £22,500 at auction in 2001. The V&A museum have a mint condition card on display, worth £25k.

It’s still possible to own a copy

(Orestone Manor/PA)

The family owners of Orestone have produced a modern-day version of the card, based on Horsley’s original design, which they’ll be giving away to guests staying at the hotel or visiting their restaurant in the run-up to Christmas.

Inside, there’s detailed information about the history of the card, making it a step above the standard fodder found in Paperchase.


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