Honouring man who painted UK’s first Christmas card

The first Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for his friend Sir Henry Cole, 1843. Cou

The first Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for his friend Sir Henry Cole, 1843. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Credit: Archant

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaques was chosen. This week: John Callcott Horsley:

This Blue Plaque together with its history pamphlet and costs of the event, all came courtesy of the previous owners of Orestone House - Mr and Mrs John and Janet Flude, who then contacted two other local personalities of the 1980s, Frank Cawson and Geoff White, to help them and the society with the research of this quite remarkable villa and its famous visitor Mr John Callcott Horsley.

Orestone House has since Victorian times been constantly changed. When the Fludes purchased the property it was already trading successfully as a hotel and the Fludes, in adding two more houses to make it larger, then renamed it Orestone Manor House Hotel sometime during 1979.

It had been in the summer of 1857 that Rector John Callcott Horsley had come to Torquay to lease Orestone House in Rockhouse Lane, Maidencombe, for a year, during which time his family met up with the Brunels - his sister Mary was married to Isambard Brunel - who were staying at either Watcombe Villa or Portland Villa holiday homes situated quite near to Orestone on the Teignmouth Road.

Isambard at this time was already planning to retire to Torbay and had purchased the Watcombe Estate, alongside Teignmouth Road and was progressing his plan for the new home.

Being near to his brother-in-law in the leased home in Rockhouse Lane, was obviously a bonus.

Like Isambard, John Horsley was virtually destined to leave his mark on British society, as being a highly accomplished artist - he was commissioned by Queen Victoria to create a portrait of Princess Beatrice a year after staying at Orestone.

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He was also commissioned to paint the UK’s first Christmas card, an idea of Sir Henry Cole who thought up the idea of a Christmas card after becoming bored writing individual letters to friends and family offering Christmas greetings.

Horsley produced him a colour picture in 1843 showing a family eating Christmas dinner- with the words ‘A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you’ appended.

Photographs used for our ‘John Callcott Horsley and Orestone’ pamphlet were provided courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts and National Railway Museum in York.

The latter a portrait of Brunel, who was painted mnay times by John C Horsley, saw him on this occasion as a man getting things done, not just a brother-in-law in his usual stance alongside the Great Eastern, standing next to its huge chains with mud on his boots.

This formal picture had him sitting at a desk in smart clothes while perhaps producing his last drawing - of maybe his final work on our Hookhills Viaduct at Broadsands in Torbay.

John and Mary are known to have entertained the Brunels to candlelit suppers and enjoyed social occasions where parlour games and croquette on the lawn or musical evenings were arranged.

For Isambard, it was idyllic, bearing in mind his manic lifestyle of overworking.

Fortunately, he left us confirmation of this by stating ‘the days and weeks at Watcombe were the happiest hours of my life’.

John was a son of the late William Horsley R.A, and a nephew of the late Sir Augustus Callcott R.A., which to some extent explains his odd second christian name.

The plaque unveiling took place in 1988 and, sadly, our research let us down as on this occasion, which has only happened twice. The plaque carries a spelling error, as John’s middle name was given as having a single ‘l’ in Calcott, repeated in our official pamphlet published by Torbay Council but fortunately, now out of print.

The always serious and solemn Rector Horsley was publicly lampooned when stating ‘he loathed nude artistry’ which then labelled him prudish.

One national cartoonist portrayed him as a corseted matron - titled ‘the Model British Matron’ and then even the Church of England vilified him. Our amazing rector died in 1893.