Did you know that Beatrix Potter’s first published works were greetings cards?
In accordance with her parents’ Unitarian beliefs, Christmas was acknowledged rather than celebrated in the Kensington household Beatrix Potter grew up in. Despite this, she enjoyed making Christmas and New Year cards for her relatives as a young woman. She said of those she made for Christmas 1889: ‘the cards were put under the plates at breakfast and proved a five minutes wonder.’ Her uncle later commented that ‘any publisher would snap at them’.
Encouraged, Potter began preparing finished drawings to send out to commercial publishers. At 23, she hoped to see her work in print for the first time.
Her inspiration for many of the designs came from her pet rabbit, Benjamin:
“I began privately to prepare six designs, taking for my model that charming rascal Benjamin Bouncer… I was rather impeded by the inquisitiveness of my aunt, and the idiosyncrasies of Benjamin who has an appetite for certain sorts of paint, but the cards were finished by Easter, and we provided ourselves with five publisher’s addresses.”
Potter and her brother, Bertram, began sending out her designs. The second publishing company they approached, Hildesheimer & Faulkner, a leading purveyor of greetings cards in London, replied with enthusiasm, sending a cheque for £6 and a request to see additional designs. But their letter also revealed a certain misunderstanding on their part – they thought the card designer concerned was ‘a gentleman’.
Unperturbed, Potter, accompanied by her uncle, went to meet Mr Faulkner of Hildesheimer & Faulkner with further examples of her work. She thought Mr Faulkner ‘very civil’, if rather ‘dry and circumspect’. As for his verdict on the cards… perhaps it is a case of actions speaking louder than words. As Potter noted in her journal: ‘Not one word did he say in praise of the cards, but he showed a mysterious desire for more.’
Hildesheimer & Faulkner took several of Beatrix Potter’s designs for publication in 1890.
When preparing her designs in watercolour, Potter adapted her use of colour so that they could be better reproduced using the colour printing method chromolithography. Even so, the drawings lost much of their quality in reproduction. Perhaps this is why Potter later said that she ‘never liked those cards’. Her early experiences with chromolithography probably also contributed to the decision to use the three colour process, a new technology more adept at reproducing her subtle watercolour work, in the printing of her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, over a decade later.
In addition to publishing the greetings cards, Hildesheimer & Faulkner also repurposed Potter’s designs within a seasonal booklet. Although the accompanying text was written by another author, Frederic E. Weatherly, this little piece of seasonal ephemera was the first published book to be illustrated by Beatrix Potter.
Through her work with Hildesheimer & Faulkner in the 1890s, Potter entered the world of commercial publication for the first time. In the following decade, when she found success as both author and illustrator of her own books, her occasional illustrative work for publishers like Hildesheimer & Faulkner became a thing of the past. She did, however, come back to greetings cards later in her career, when she designed some charity Christmas cards. But that’s a story for another day…
Some examples of Beatrix Potter’s earliest card designs and a copy of the seasonal booklet A Happy Pair are included in the current display in gallery 102, Beatrix Potter’s London. Other examples can be viewed by appointment at Blythe House. You might also enjoy this display of other Victorian Christmas cards in Gallery 108 of the V&A.