Since the house has been so beautifully decorated for Christmas I’ve chosen one of our Christmas themed objects for a closer look this month. It normally hangs in the Larkspur Dressing Room, but at the moment A Dream of Patience isn’t covered up for the conservation exhibition like the other objects in the room – it’s part of the Christmas exhibition in the Croxley.
At first glance it might not seem like a very festive scene, but it’s actually a Christmas card design. Lots of Victorian cards looked like this and they were very popular, with over 1.5 million produced in 1880 alone. Henry Cole only came up with the idea of Christmas cards in 1843, but as printing got cheaper the images became more elaborate and artistic to try to stop the holiday becoming too commercial.
People liked aesthetic Christmas cards as they could not only send messages of goodwill to their friends, but also have them as art in their houses. However, Punch magazine commented at the time that they were “about as appropriate to Christmas as strawberries and iced-cream.”
This particular design by Alice Havers won the first prize of £200 in a Christmas card competition judged by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais. The cards were first printed in 1882 by the publisher Hildesheimer & Faulkner, who also published Christmas cards by Beatrix Potter. The publishers sent some Christmas cards to Oscar Wilde who commented that they were “really charming” with the ones by Alice Havers being “especially good.” This design was later used in the programme of a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience, which parodied the aesthetic movement of the time.
The artist, Alice Havers, had an exotic upbringing, living in the Falklands and Uruguay as a child, before settling in England in 1870. She was unusual for the time for continuing to use her maiden name after she married and was a member of the Society of Lady Artists. She was a friend of Lewis Carroll and a well-known illustrator who exhibited at the Royal Academy. Some art critics thought that she was overly sentimental, but she was clearly talented – Queen Victoria even bought one of her early works.