top of page

The man behind the first Christmas Card

The front door of the Great Exhibition and woodburytye of Sir Henry Cole

During the 19th century, so much progress was made, institutional reforms and exchanges of ideas between England and Europe.  As we have written in our previous blog “The first Christmas Card”,  its creator Sir Henry Cole was part of a group of people who shaped that Century.

Sir Henry Cole was born in Bath, Somerset, England, the 15th of july of 1808.  His mother was Leticia Dormer and his father Captain Henry Robert Cole, then of the 1st Dragoon Guards.

He was educated a the Christ’s Hospital and after leaving school in 1823 he became a civil servant at the Records Office aged 15.  Meanwhile he was transcribing records, he found time to study watercolor painting under David Cox, one of the greatest English landscape painters.  Cole’s sketches were exhibited at the Royal Academy.


In 1839, Parliament granted power to carry out the new postal scheme.  The treasury offered premiums fo the best proposals as to stamps.  Cole gained one of the premiums and was employed there. 

 Then in 1840, Cole and Sir Rowland Hill created the first adhesive stamp “Penny Black”.  Before that only very rich people could afford to send anything in the post.  There were new railways and they could carry much more post than the horse carriages and were faster too.

In 1845, the Arts Society, whose pattern was Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, announced a competition.  Cole and Herbert Minton (Europe’s leading ceramic factory during the Victorian era) won that competition for the design of a tea service.  That tea service was sold very well and in 1847 Cole founded "Summerly’s Art Manufacturers", where painters and sculptors designed for industries with the goal of commissioning work from artists that would rise the level of industrial design and the overall taste of general public.


Under the pseudonym Felix Summerly he wrote a series of children’s books, a hand-book for the architecture, sculpture, tombs and decorations of Westminster Abbey, guidebooks of the National Gallery, Hampton Court and many other art exhibitions.


Thanks to his Royal Society for the Encouragement of Manufacturers and Commerce’s membership he lobbied government for support to improve standards in industrial design.  

Cole visited the 11th Quinquennial Paris Exhibition in 1849.  It left a good impresion on him and took the idea to make it back in London but including international participants, adapting it into a larger international exhibition.


He secured the backing of Queen Victoria to establish in 1850 a commission for the exhibition, under the presidency of Prince Albert.

In 1851 took place the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, also known as the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace (structure in which it was held and was build only for that purpose nine months before). It was opened from 1 May to 15 October that year.  A visitant of the exhibition said “could watch the entire process of cotton production from spinning to finished cloth”.

All the products, manufacturers and machinery exhibited were the most advanced at that time, and the exhibition prime motive was for Britain to “make clear to the world its role as industrial leader and superiority”.  That was not an exaggeration, according to the illustrated catalogue of the event the exhibitors were not only from throughout Britain but also from its Colonies and Dependencies and 44 foreign states.  Numbering 13,000 exhibits in total, including machinery, kitchen appliances and jewerly from India.


Much of the exhibited ítems would be developed during XX century like the precursor to the fax machine, the world’s first voting machine which counted votes automatically, daguerreotypes, a barometer using leeches was demonstrated, a single-cast iron frame for a piano, a telescope, and the New Zealand’ s exhibit crafted items made by Maori such as flax baskets, carved wooden objects and many other crafts.

There was not only industrial development items, but arming objects too, like Walker and Dragoon revolvers from the manufacturer Samuel Colt.

Famous people of the time attended it, including Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Alfred Tennyson, William Thackeray, William Morris (then a teenager, later he became a prominent textil designer and major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts).  The opening music under the superintendence of William Sterndale Bennett was directed by George Thomas Smart.  The world’s first soft drink Schweppes was the oficial sponsor of the event.


Exhibition interior (Photo Collectrion Victoria & Albert Museum)

Six million people, equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time, visited the Great Exhibition.  The average daily attendance was 42,831 with a peak of almost 110,000 people.


The event surplus was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.  And to set up an educational trust to provide grants and scholarships for industrial research. 

At the end of the Great Exhibition, Parliament authorized 5,000 pounds to purchase the most striking objects that were on display to be a permanente collection along with the best drawings from art schools from around the country.  These items would form the core of the new Museum of Manufacturers, which will turn later on the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Cole became his first director.  His intention for the museum was to become a “schoolroom for everyone”, and admission to the Victoria and Albert museum continues to be free to the public.


Cole was key for the development of the National Art Training School, later on renamed the Royal College of Art, and played a significant part in the establishment of the Royal College of Music and the Imperial College of London.


Cole retired in 1873, after 50 years in public service.  In 1875 he was rewarded for his service by receiving the Order of the Bath.  Queen Victoria herself recommended he be knighted.

He never slowed down and continued working for education and established the National Training School of Music and the National Training School for Cookery.


At the end of 1881, with the help of his daughter he wrote his memoir.  On April 17, 1882 Cole sat for a portrait with the famous painter Whistler.  That night his condition worsened and he died the following evening.


He was an admirable man, with infinite energy who gave a lot to promote the arts in his country, for the creation of countless art teaching institutions accessible to the entire population.

Here at “El Castillo de Ana” we admire so much Sir Henry Cole!! He inspires us to make the most beautiful handmade Christmas Cards.(take a look to Christmas Section) Thank you so much Sir Henry Cole!! elcastillodeana


Recent Posts

See All


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page