Early Aus­tralian Christ­mas cards

Australian Traveller - - Contents -

A COMPELLING BUT lit­tle known Aus­traliana story is that of early Aussie Christ­mas cards. Large-scale pro­duc­tion of Christ­mas cards be­gan in the UK in the 1870s, and be­fore long they were be­ing shipped for use in the Aus­tralian colonies. But the in­con­gruities be­tween the snowy scenes de­picted and the re­al­ity of Christ­mas in Aus­tralia were as glar­ing as the south­ern hemi­sphere sun; and nat­u­rally local cards emerged that of­fered a truer rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It is be­lieved that the first such ex­am­ples were 12 beau­ti­ful prints of na­tive wild­flower paint­ings pro­duced by the artist He­lena Forde, nee Scott, in 1879. The fol­low­ing year, He­lena’s sis­ter Har­riet Scott pro­duced a sim­i­lar set (the Scott sis­ters were renowned for their botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions). Th­ese images, over­laid with fes­tive wishes, would have been re­pro­duced as sin­gle sheets; the folded greet­ing card we’re fa­mil­iar with to­day didn’t emerge un­til the 20th cen­tury. They were ad­ver­tised and sold through news­pa­pers and jour­nals, such as The Sydney Mail and The Aus­tralasian Sketcher with Pen and Pen­cil. The 1880s proved to be the hey­day of the Christ­mas card and other im­agery de­pict­ing fes­tive life in Aus­tralia fol­lowed: pic­nics in the bush, ocean views, and even a frocked up kan­ga­roo paint­ing a por­trait of an emu in a top hat and tails. They would al­low peo­ple to il­lus­trate the dif­fer­ence of their ex­pe­ri­ence to loved ones back in the UK, and help to con­sol­i­date na­tional sym­bols in the years lead­ing up to fed­er­a­tion. “I think [that] the 1880s pub­li­ca­tion spree was an ex­pres­sion of an al­ready grow­ing na­tional iden­tity, es­pe­cially in the lead up to the 1888 cen­te­nary of Aus­tralian coloni­sa­tion,” says Me­gan Mar­tin, Head of Col­lec­tions at Sydney Liv­ing Mu­se­ums. A hand­ful of th­ese cards can be seen in the 19th-cen­tury scrap al­bum of Bessie Rouse at Rouse Hill House, part of Sydney Liv­ing Mu­se­ums. Even though early Aus­tralian Christ­mas cards were of­ten beau­ti­ful art­works in their own right, they were con­sid­ered pieces of ephemera and as a re­sult, weren’t saved or pre­served in the same way. Ex­am­ples of early Aus­tralian Christ­mas cards are rare arte­facts th­ese days, but the pre­cious few that are held in col­lec­tions, such as the Josef Le­bovic Gallery and The Hamil­ton Rouse Hill Trust Col­lec­tion, of­fer a win­dow into one of the ways that Aus­tralia forged its own spirit.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Local an­i­mals made for spir­ited greet­ings in the 1880s; Christ­mas, stock­man-style; A card, circa 1883, de­pict­ing a fes­tive pic­nic in the bush.

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