Receiving a Christmas card in the mail is a novel concept in our modern world. For those of us who do receive one, we would likely keep it, sit it on a shelf for the festive period, and then eventually it would find its way into a recycling bin. When Melbourne artist Eric Thake created his first linocut Christmas card in 1941, it’s quite unlikely he foresaw that he would continue producing annual editions for the next 38 years.
The response to his first card ‘The Itchy Owl’ was so positive and uplifting for its recipients during the dark days of World War II that he created another the following year, and so the tradition began. It is said that each year the recipient list would grow, as more people learned and became eager to be part of the Thake Christmas card club. Recipients ranged from close friends and family to fellow artists, academics, and directors of institutions. Even today, the cards are widely collected and fetch significant figures when presented to auction; a novel thing given their ephemeral nature.
In Thake’s card for 1954, ‘Gallery Director’ or ‘This way to Phar Lap’, the then director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Daryl Lindsay, is seen pointing behind him to a glass case holding the taxidermied remains of Australia’s most famous racehorse. We see an expressionless Lindsay, wearing a bow tie, directing visitors past two unadmired artworks on the wall to a group of people genuflecting around Phar Lap. It’s said that Thake was referencing Lindsay’s frustrations about the hordes of visitors coming to the gallery on Swanston Street to view not art, but a horse. A quite reasonable interpretation no doubt, but Thake’s cards were never wholly cynical. In a sweet nod to tradition, the bowing guests have removed their hats as a sign of respect to the revered Phar Lap. Showing some cheek, Thake distributed a copy of this edition to Hal Missingham, the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
The 1969 edition of Thake’s Christmas card is among his most iconic. Titled ‘Nuns on the Geelong Road’, the work depicts a car full of holy sisters, with one’s eyes visible in the rear vision mirror. To the inside of the card Thake notes ‘…Oil Sheiks to Bahrein’ followed by ‘the choice is yours’. An undeniably successful image largely due to its simplicity, Thake allows his recipients to decide if they are sighting a group of nuns en route to Geelong, or a trio of Sheiks in the Middle East. Having a remarkable ability to see things that others may not in everyday scenes and objects, this linocut emphasises that Thake saw the world differently to most Australians. Impressions of this card have travelled near and far. The British Museum holds the edition Thake sent to then director of the National Gallery of Australia, James Mollison. Leonard Joel offered another impression of ‘Nuns on the Geelong Road’ in our July 2023 Prints and Multiples auction with the work achieving $5,250 (IBP), the highest price for this print in Australian auction history.
By the mid-1970s, Thake’s health, including his eyesight, was beginning to decline. He stopped producing linocut cards and replaced them with lithographs for the final five years of the series. That Thake was becoming more conscious of his own mortality is clear in the Christmas card he sent to the esteemed arts writer Ursula Hoff in 1980. This, the final card of his enduring series is titled ‘Airlines Resume’, an offset lithograph where he depicts a group of women sitting in a line waiting at a ‘TAA’ lounge. He inscribes, ‘Just a reminder that both I and the cards have reached the end of the line’, a short but moving note to his friend of many decades letting her know not only that his series had concluded, but like the ladies waiting at the airport, he too was waiting for one final flight.
By James Stanton, Art Registrar, Guest Contributor
Banner Image (Detail): Eric Thake (1904-1982) Gallery Director or This way to Phar Lap 1954, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1964 / © Courtesy of the artist’s estate