Taking a look into Christmas Cards of the Past

December’s Archive of the Month looks at three individual Christmas cards and also R.B. Fishenden (1880 – 1956), the eminent print consultant and editor of the Penrose Annual, the London based review of the graphic arts, for whom they were designed.

The Christmas cards are included in the Guildford School of Art Archive and have an unknown provenance, but perhaps can be attributed to contacts between Fishenden and the noted Surrey School of Printing, formed through the collaboration of the Department of Printing at the Guildford School of Art and the corresponding department at the Reigate and Redhill School of Art.

RB Fishenden Christmas Cards

Richard Bertie Fishenden was born on 6 August 1880 in Kensington, London and was the son of Richard and Louisa Fishenden (née Freestone). His father was an oil and colourman working in London, so he was already familiar with the technical aspects of colour mixing from basic pigments to manufacture coloured paint.

He was apprenticed at the age of 14 to Gee and Watson Ltd, and at 20 became the Works Manager of this firm of process engravers in London. In 1902 he became a Lecturer in the Printing Department of the Manchester College of Technology, becoming Head of Printing and during his time there conducted formative experiments in the new technique of rotogravure, a type of intaglio printing process. He effectively reinvented the process and devised all his own equipment in order to achieve it. The processes were fully revealed in a paper he delivered on 16 March 1915 before the Royal Photographic Society. His findings were widely reprinted in the Society’s journal and the British Journal of Photography.

In the same year he married Margaret White, later to become the eminent industrial researcher, Margaret Fishenden (1889 – 1977). They had one son, Richard Martin Fishenden, in 1917, and he later went on to be a noted physicist at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. The family moved to London in 1921 and he re-entered the commercial branch of the industry. During these years his interests broadened, becoming an authority on the often ignored subjects of ink and paper. At one end of the process of printed reproduction he was skilled in all applications of photography; at the other, he was expert in the arts of typography.

However the conflicts of a career and marriage and motherhood were too much for that era and Richard and Margaret divorced in 1932. R.B. Fishenden married Marjorie Hodder (1902 – 1988) shortly afterwards in 1933, and she became his personal assistant throughout the remainder of his career.

In 1935 he was appointed editor of the Penrose Annual, and he remained active in this capacity until his death. Under his vigorous direction the annual was divided into two parts, the first devoted to the arts, the second to techniques. In 1942 he joined the Penguin staff as technical editor of the “King Penguin” books. For this series he devised the finest possible colour printing, and secured it at a cost that to the trade seemed impossibly low. After 1943 he was adviser to Messrs. Spicers, the papermakers. His continued interest in new processes and new material, his willingness to encourage research were invaluable in the establishment of the Printing and Allied Trades Research Association at Leatherhead in 1930.

R.B. Fishenden’s life and career synchronized with one of the most momentous periods of change and development which had ever been known in the history of graphic arts. By the time of his death on 7 October 1956 the graphic arts had evolved into today’s specialist practices.

These simple Christmas cards give us a window into the early 20th-century and remind us of a pioneer in the graphic arts.


Fishenden, Richard Bertie, Who Was Who, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 1920 – 2008; online edition, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007.

Mertle, Joseph S. (1957). Evolution of Rotogravure. Ohio: J.S. Mertle.

Mr. R.B. Fishenden. (1956). The Times [London, England], 9 October 1956, p.13. The Times Digital Archive [http://find.galegroup.com/ttda, accesses 1 March 2013]

Stevenson, Julie. (2004). Fishenden , Margaret (1889-1977). In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/53240, accessed 4 April 2013]

The National Archives, RG11/25/22 page 38. Extract from the 1881 Census for High Row, Kensington, London.

Warde, Beatrice. (1957). In Memoriam Richard Bertram Fishenden. In: The Penrose Annual: A Review of the Graphic Arts. Vol. 51, 1957. London: Lund Humphries.

Reviewed by Frances Teasdale, Head of Collections and Discovery


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