Nothing says ‘Christmas’ like a gun-toting duck …

Jessie M. King Christmas card

For the Library’s shopping day this year (Thursday, 14th December) we will have on display a very varied selection of Christmas cards, some widely commercially available at the time, and others designed by respected artists, sometimes for their own use.

One such was Jessie M. (Marion) King (1875–1949). She was a celebrated illustrator and designer who was born in New Kilpatrick, Dunbartonshire.  Amongst the Library’s collections is a small selection of Christmas and New Year greetings cards from her prodigious output, in her typically intricate art nouveau ‘Scottish style’. [1]

As a complete contrast we have the cards that a Miss E.M. Dewar collected over her lifetime, as well as those passed down to her from family.

A rather un-Christmassy duck! (from the Dewar collection)

She was Evelyn Margaret Dewar (1913-1991), an accomplished violinist from Larbert, Falkirk. By the age of 13 she was studying with Scotland’s foremost teacher of violin, Camillo Ritter, at the Scottish National Academy of Music. In 1932 she travelled to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where she became the last pupil of the world famous violin teacher Prof. Otakar Sevcik.  When he died Evelyn continued studying there, but when Germany announced its intentions to invade the Sudetenland Czechoslovakia must have seemed a dangerous place and she returned to Scotland. Her career faltered after that, though there were still musical recitals, some involving family members, but she appears to have lived a fairly quiet life. However, this collection[2], which was donated to the Library after her death, reveals her wide social circle. It contains charming party invitations from friends, but mostly a dizzying variety of Christmas cards.

From the Dewar collection

Several of the cards feature those eternal design standards puppies and kittens (though some of those cats look faintly sinister) and others are rather puzzling – ducklings and daffodils on a Christmas card? Or that festive favourite the parrot!  There’s also a slightly disturbing gun-toting, cigarette-smoking duck … Some contain personal touches, such as a photograph or a sprig of heather, but all of them convey those warm wishes we send out to friends and family at this time of year.  As such, they are cheering to peruse all at once, containing as they do tiny windows into one person’s social and emotional life.

Photograph of Antarctica taken from the deck of Discovery II (Wordie collection)

Featuring lots of snow and ice we have the Royal Research Ships collection of cards.[3] The Interdepartmental Committee for the Dependencies of the Falkland Islands (or Discovery Committee) was set up in 1924, and three ships – Discovery, William Scoresby and Discovery II – spent 25 years gathering biological and geographic data from the Antarctic regions. The Committee was represented by members from, amongst others, the British Museum, the Colonial Office, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Admiralty, showing the wide-ranging nature of its explorations.

The first recorded ship named Discovery was owned by the East India Company in the 17th century, but probably the most well-known is the one from this Committee trio, which sailed under Commander Robert Falcon Scott during the famous National Antarctic Expedition of 1901–04. By 1925 Discovery had been designated a Royal Research Ship and began a series of “Discovery Investigations” into the great whales of the Southern Ocean.  The William Scoresby continued this research, as did Discovery II (1929-1961), and also investigated the ocean’s chemical and hydrographical properties.  Built by Messrs. Ferguson Bros. of Port Glasgow, launched in 1928 and completed in 1929, Discovery II was the first purpose-built oceanographic research vessel.  The small selection of Christmas cards is from our Wordie collection. Sir James Mann Wordie CBE FRSE LLD (1889–1962) was a Scottish polar explorer and geologist who made nine polar expeditions, including Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914.

E.R. Gunther’s card showing a drawing of Discovery.

One signature amongst these cards caught my eye, that of an “E. R. Gunther” from 1926; the card has an illustration of Discovery in all her glory. Looking at the crew list this is probably Eustace Rolfe Gunther, a zoologist “with intense enthusiasm for research and … unremitting hard work” [4]who, as well as being highly praised for his work ethic and sense of duty, appears to have been a water-colourist of some talent as well, and also a dedicated husband and father. He joined the Territorial Army in 1937, and unfortunately, according to his obituary in Nature, July 1940, 2nd Lieutenant Gunther was accidentally shot while on active service.

‘The village shop’ by Joan Hassall.


Joan Hassall (1906–1988) was a talented English wood engraver and book illustrator who worked as a tutor at the Edinburgh College of Art throughout World War II.  During this time, she produced chapbooks for the Saltire Society and joined the Society of Scottish Artists. She retained her Scottish connections throughout her working life, designing editions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Burns’s poems, and she illustrated Eric Linklater’s the Sealskin Trousers, as well as working on Scottish poet Andrew Young’s collection. These Christmas cards[5] are from a set of eleven made from the blocks engraved by her for the book Our village by English author Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855). Some of the illustrations do not feature the usual snowy scenes, but trees in full leaf, or ladies examining foliage, perhaps as a sign of the approaching spring that we can often forget about in the depths of winter.

A selection of the Library’s Christmas card designs.

  The National Library of Scotland began producing Christmas cards[6] in 1952 and they always feature illustrations from our collections.

By Arthur Wragg.

Definitely not featuring jolly Christmas scenes are the cards designed by Arthur Wragg (1903–1976). He was a commercial illustrator whose main work emerged between the two World wars. His pen and ink drawings resemble woodcuts in their starkness, and their powerful depiction of social injustice led to commissions by, amongst others, the socialist magazine Tribune, and leading the pacifist Dean of Canterbury, Dick Sheppard, to describe Wragg’s illustrations as  “those tremendous arraignments of the bestial savagery of war that grip you by the throat.”[7]  Yet as a trained commercial artist, Wragg also designed illustrations for advertisements, and even, during the 1970s and 80s, record covers.  However, he is best known for his artistic response to social and political ills seen through the prism of his Christian socialism; his illustrations reflect not only the experiences of war and injustice, but redemption and salvation. This was noticed by Vera Brittain when she commissioned an illustration for a book cover:  “something which … will emphasise not so much the horror and suffering in the world, but the spiritual grace by means of which people can not only be victorious in their own disasters, but help others in a similar situation”.[8] These cards[9] do not feature typical Christmas images, but rather continue Wragg’s strongly Christian socialist themes.

What all these cards show is that the designs vary as widely as the different ways people experience Christmas, but they all demonstrate that need to reach out to family and friends.


                                           “May your Christmas be full of fun and frolics”!

From the Dewar collection.


[1]  Jessie M. King. [Christmas and New Year greetings cards designed by Jessie M. King]. ca.1910. Shelfmark:  FB.m.93(7-9, 19)

[2] [A Collection of Christmas cards, invitation cards, and other greeting cards belonging to the late Miss E. M. Dewar.] c.1910-1952.  Shelfmark: FB.s.1010

[3]  [Christmas cards from Royal Research Ships Discovery and Discovery II]. Shelfmark:  Wordie 1763(23-28)

[4] Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond (Proceedings of the 5th International Congress) edited by Keith Rodney Benson; Philip F. Rehbock. La Jolla, U.S., 1993.

[5] Eleven hand printed Christmas cards from the blocks engraved by Joan Hassall for “Our village” by Miss Mitford. London, ca.1947. Shelfmark: 1973.303

[6] N.L.S. Christmas cards. [Edinburgh, various dates]. Shelfmark: GNE.9-9/28

[7] H.R.L. (Hugh Richard Lawrie) Sheppard. We say No! The plain man’s guide to pacifism. London, 1935.

[8] Vera Brittain. Humiliation with honour. London, 1942.

[9] Arthur Wragg. Twelve Christmas cards. London, 1936. Shelfmark:  5.718