John Calcott Horsley 1817-1903

First Christmas Card painted by John Calcott Horsley - Click To View Enlargment    Original Letter Signed by John Calcott Horsley Click to View Enlargement

When London's John Calcott Horsley invented the first Christmas card in 1843 as a favor to Henry Cole, neither man had any idea of the impact it would have in Britain and later in America. Even the early Christmas card manufacturers believed Christmas cards to be a vogue which would soon pass. They operated on a quick turn basis and did not bother to document the cards they produced. However, the Christmas card was destined to become an integral part of the holiday season. By 1880 their manufacture was big business, creating previously unknown opportunities for artists, writers, printers, and engravers.

The "trick card" was the most popular Christmas card of the Victorian era. While infinite in variety, it always featured some element of surprise. While seemingly simple at first glance, the turning of a page, the pulling of a string, or the moving of a lever would reveal the unexpected, showing the card to be more complex than first imagined. 

Pull out flower cards were among the most treasured of trick cards. An example from 1870 is that of red, white and yellow roses encased in a fan shaped handle. Pull the silken thread dangling from the handle and the card opens to twice it's size. Five separate rose petals come into view, each surrounded with lilies of the valley and imprinted with quotes from poets such as Wordsworth and Keats. 

Another popular trick card employed the use of realistic reproductions of money and checks. The resemblance was close enough to be deceptive when first opening the card. The "Bank of Love" card was so similar to a real five pound note that it was withdrawn soon after being issued. Cards resembling checks would be issued from 'The Bank of Blessings" for "Ten Thousand Joys." Railway tickets were printed with "Prosperity" being the destination from "All Difficulties," transferable "Only To Old Friends."

"Tab cards" comprise the largest group of trick cards. They consisted of two cardboard sections attached at the edges while a tab between the two enabled a different scene or text to be brought into view when manipulated. One such card considered daring in the late 1880's wished the receiver a "Joyous Yuletide" while featuring a young women whose legs appeared to move as if dancing when the tab was pulled. 

Trick cards were among the many Christmas cards the Victorians collected in special scrapbooks. Great enjoyment was found in sharing their cards with family and friends throughout the entire year. Those albums are today what enables us to, glimpse yet another facet of the Victorian world.   - The Country Register- by Laurie Nienhaus

Laurie Nienhaus is the director of The Ladies' Tea Guild and editor in Chief of the Tea Guild's quarterly publication, The Gilded Lily. To learn more about this unique social club and tea society or to subscribe to The Gilded Lily or the Guild's free monthly tea ezine, visit

Historical and Genre Painter, and Prude.

Horsley was a member of the Cranbrook artists colony in Kent. His first exhibit at the Royal Academy was 'Rent Day at Haddon Hall in the days of Queen Elizabeth,' in 1839. The success of this picture established Horsley's career as an artist. Most of Horsley's paintings involved pretty women, in pleasant surroundings. His work was highly finished, and skillfully painted however. He was the Rector of the Royal Academy from 1875 to 1890. 

Horsley really made his name, and established his position historically in a very novel way. In an age famous for hypocrisy and prudery, John Calcott Horsley was a leading candidate to be the greatest prude of all! Horsley objected to painting from life classes, and to paintings of the nude. His fearless exploits in this area, led to his being known as 'Clothes Horsley,' and having to endure a degree of ridicule he probably deserved. 

On the 25th May, 1885 a letter appeared in The Times. The letter, entitled 'A Woman's Plea,' and signed 'A British Matron,' was in fact written by Horsley. In those far- off days, a century before The Times was trashed and trivialized by Rupert Murdoch, it's position as the voice of what we now know as the establishment was unchallenged. Horsley's letter certainly struck a chord with various other rather strange people, and a number of letters were received sympathetic to it, including one from a member of' The Church of England Purity Society.' Horsley followed this letter, with another rather more moderate one signed 'H.' Finally Horsley attacked again at a Church of England Congress in October of the same year. He was particularly offended women painting from life. It would seem that women students would be corrupted by seeing the naked body of another woman! Horsley had invited and received ridicule, including the famous Linley Sambourne cartoon ' The Model British Matron,' showing him as the corseted Matron disgusted by the Medici Venus. In these days where any kind of triviality and sexual explicitness is the accepted norm, perhaps it is well-worth remembering this kind of absurd prudery, the reaction against which did much to bring us to the present equally unbalanced situation.

Another of Horsley's main claims to fame is that his sister, Mary married Isambard Kingdom Brunel 1806-1859, the greatest of Victorian engineers. 

An important source of information for this short biography was ' The Victorian Nude.' Sexuality, morality and art by Alison Smith, published by Manchester University Press in 1996


The first Christmas card: John Calcott Horsley campaigned against naked models being used by artists, hence his nickname of "Clothes-Horsely". This led to much shaking of heads and indeed nipples - as there also was when he designed the first Christmas card. 

He was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole who in 1843 was too busy to write to his friends as usual over the festive season. Printed in black and white and then colored by hand, 1,000 cards were produced for "Old King" Cole, with the leftovers sold off by the printer.

The design showed a happy family raising a festive glass as a toast to the recipient. Sadly, un-festive critics condemned the design - for promoting drunkenness. 

The Christmas card then went into hibernation until 1862, when printers Charles Goodall came up with minimalist designs consisting of the words "A Merry Christmas". Robins were added later, followed by holly and afterwards Little Red Riding Hood. After that it was downhill all the way: Wise Men, mangers, snowmen. 

The backlash by real-life Scrooges began in 1871, with the first newspaper article asserting that the deluge of cards was delaying "legitimate correspondence". Another Yuletide milestone was passed in 1873 when the Times personal column ran the first ad apologizing for "not sending Christmas cards this year". And it was 120 years ago that the Post Office first begged us to "post early for Christmas", but we still don't take a blind bit of notice. 

- Jonathan Sale, The Guardian

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