Christmas Markets, just like Christmas itself, are all about tradition: and one famous tradition of Christmas Markets here in Europe is the carousel or merry-go-round. If you opened your Advent Calendar on 4th December you'll have enjoyed watching Ted's fantastical ride. And earlier today, on a beautiful sunny morning here in the glorious Georgian city of Bath, I snapped the above shot of our own magnificent example.
The Bath carousel dates from Victorian times and as you can see, it's a wonderfully elaborate extravaganza of colour and light. On a chilly Monday morning there weren't many takers for rides, but when the evening comes and the city fills with families out for a Christmas shopping trip there'll be hordes of children clamouring for a turn on the merry-go-round, followed by a sizzling sausage sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate, while their parents warm their hands on a steaming paper cup of spicy mulled wine. What could possibly be more Christmassy?
In the British Isles you can never be more than 70 miles from the sea, and our jagged cliffs and sandy beaches constantly beckon those in search of rest or recreation.
A few weeks ago the team met up on the coast of Devon to spend a few days bouncing ideas around in the search for mutual inspiration. We were staying near Salcombe, and the easiest way to get from our hotel into the town was by sea the local roads are hair-raisingly narrow and twisty. To that end, parked on the beach next to the hotel was something new to all of us: a sea tractor.
Initial investigation showed it to be no more than a motorised platform on wheels. Surely this clumsy-looking contraption couldn't take us all the way to Salcombe?
Indeed not: it transpired that the sea tractor simply takes you down the beach and far enough into the sea to act as a mobile jetty. A little ferryboat meets the tractor at agreed times and takes you the rest of the way.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and we loved the simple brilliance of the idea, and the way it reflected the resourcefulness of people for whom the sea is a daily challenge.
I don't know if the sea tractor directly inspired any new e-card ideas, but the salty air and autumnal sunshine certainly left us refreshed and ready for the Christmas rush.
Bev's two new note cards designs are loosely based on the Arts and Crafts movement, which was established in the late 19th century, but went on to influence artists and designers especially of textiles, furniture and other domestic products for many decades.
One of its aims, as stated by the architect and designer Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, was "to revive the desire for beauty in things of everyday use" and it struck me that this philosophy shares a great deal with our own aims here at jacquielawson.com. One of our guiding principles has always been to show that e-cards do not have to be ugly cartoons accompanied by characterless music: they can be beautiful creations.
One wonders what William Morris, the most famous proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, would have thought of electronic greeting cards. He considered production by machines to be "altogether an evil", so it's unlikely he would have embraced the digital age. On the other hand, the creation of greetings cards by individual artists exercising true skill and personal creativity seems very much akin to the movement's aims, even if the means of distribution would have been almost incomprehensible at the time.
It's July, so we're preparing for Christmas!
One of the challenges involved in producing a new Advent Calendar every year is to find around 25 pieces of music to accompany each day's animation. Of course, all the old favourites need to be in there Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and we can also have fun with arrangements of popular carols in unusual styles, such as the hula illustrated below! But it's important also to bring in some completely new melodies, and this year we've looked for inspiration from a rich tradition of Christmas music from continental Europe.
One of our selections is a beautiful Polish carol called Lulajże Jezuniu, to be sung in the original Polish by our friends at Salisbury Cathedral Choir. This caused a few raised eyebrows German and French were no problem at all for the choristers, but Polish pronunciation was something new to them. But they rose magnificently to the challenge and we have a lovely recording in the can.
Incidentally, if you know Chopin's piano music, you'll already know the melody of Lulajże Jezuniu: it's the middle theme in his B minor Scherzo.
Some of the ideas for our e-cards come from the unlikeliest places.
As related below, last year we had a team get-together in Oxford, and one of the items on the agenda was to visit some great English country houses, as part of our research for the Edwardian Advent Calendar. One of the houses we visited was Broughton Castle a beautiful and fascinating mediaeval manor house which is the ancestral home of the 21st Baron Saye and Sele.
Our newest recruit, Tom Evans, was persuaded to do the tourist thing and dress up in a suit of armour for us all to photograph. Little did we know that this spark would light a fire in Tom's imagination which culminated in one of our most popular Halloween cards ever: Halloween Knight
If you're ever in North Oxfordshire, we'd highly recommend a trip to Broughton Castle. Unlike so many old houses open to the public, Broughton Castle is still a family home, and that gives it a marvellous feeling of authenticity and history. And we even met His Lordship! a delightful gentleman who seemed most concerned that we should enjoy our visit.
One of the most attractive jobs of 2013 was to dream up a magnificent mansion as the imaginary location for our new Edwardian Advent Calendar. This enviable task fell to one of our most experienced and talented artists, Sally Lisney.
The job required Sally not only to design the principal views of the house and gardens, but also to come up with ideas for twenty-five daily animations, as well as the beautiful settings required for each: the kitchen, pantry, nursery and so on not to mention a magnificent orangery which Sally created from scratch to show off a huge Christmas tree.
Many visits ensued to fabulous old houses as far apart as Saltash in Cornwall and Blenheim in Oxfordshire. After a few were rejected for being too old or too young, too austere or too florid, Sally chose Kingston Lacy in Dorset as her model for the main facade.
As Sally says, "Kingston Lacy has long been one of my favourites. The front and rear views are based upon this beautiful house, and the entrance drive, lake and bridge are inspired by Chatsworth and Lyme Park."
"I suspect that Mr Darcy had a hand in my daydreams..."
If you've opened your Edwardian Advent Calendar today (3rd December), you'll no doubt have had fun making flower arrangements, and maybe even trying to surpass the gorgeous displays designed by "Her Ladyship".
Her Ladyship is of course our own Bev Pask-Hughes, who not only designed the sample arrangements, but grew nearly all the flowers and foliage in her own garden, and then painted them and scanned the paintings into her computer.
The only plants which did not come from Bev's garden were the amaryllis, which is too tender to be grown outdoors in the UK, and the mistletoe, which grows widely but is hard to get established. One of Bev's ambitions when she retires is to grow mistletoe!
"Every Christmas my mother, and my grandmother before her, would fill a bowl with large white chrysanthemum blooms, and when we were researching the Advent Calendar we found that this was a common tradition in Edwardian times" says Bev. So for the first time this year, Bev grew chrysanthemums in her own garden, and with the help of our Advent Calendar, you can now feature her lovely white blooms in your own Christmas arrangement.
Our annual Advent Calendar has always included a few games which let you design your own something whether it's Christmas stockings, wreaths, or even snowflakes. In fact our snowflake maker is probably the single most popular game in all the Advent Calendars so far so much so that we've included it again this year.
What's new this year is that all the "design your own" games will have the ability to save your designs (as JPG files) so you can share them with others not just your friends and family, but the wider public too. With that in mind we're encouraging people to use the hashtag: #JLAdventCalendar
You can try it out right now! This year's version includes more games and puzzles than ever before to entertain you while you wait for the calendar to open on December 1st, and one of the games available throughout November is yes, you guessed it the snowflake maker.
So fire up your Edwardian Advent Calendar, head on down to the Pavilion and design yourself some snowflakes. And then show off your skills on Facebook, Pinterest or whatever takes your fancy.
Just remember to use the hashtag: #JLAdventCalendar
We approached Salisbury Cathedral earlier this year to see if we could record the cathedral choir singing carols for incorporation into this year's Christmas productions. They agreed, so we're thrilled to be able to confirm that their wonderful singing will be featuring in this year's Advent Calendar as well as our Christmas e-card line up.
Our recording session with them took place in the Cathedral one evening a few weeks ago. We were very impressed by the professionalism and discipline of the young choristers not to mention that wonderful, ethereal sound as they effortlessly hit the top notes! Towards the end of a gruelling three-hour recording session they were getting visibly tired, but they kept going resolutely, and we have some fantastic tracks in the can which are even now inspiring the team to give of their best. We're hugely grateful to everyone at Salisbury who helped make this possible and we can't wait to show off the results this Christmas.
I can't believe it's over six months since my last contribution to this page. So much has been happening it's easy to let things like this slip.
One of the highlights of the last few months was a team get-together in Oxford. Most of the JL artistic team work from home, so it's really important from time to time to have a session where we all meet up face-to-face and throw a few ideas around. And we try to choose a location which we think will help inspire new ideas, so Oxford my old alma mater seemed like a fine choice.
And indeed it was: we had a great time splashing through the rain to admire the dreaming spires, between productive sessions to thrash out new ideas. One such was our latest card for Father's Day I can't imagine how the idea of a classic car rally sprang out of a pint in an Oxford pub. But then again, that same pub apparently helped inspire the creation of hobbits, orcs and magic rings, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised. It must be something in the beer.
I just received an email from our local supermarket inviting me to reserve a turkey for Christmas. It's still only October, and I refuse to allow the ever-longer tentacles of the Christmas marketeers to force me to think about my family arrangements for Christmas just yet. And anyway, we usually do goose!
But in other ways, Christmas is of course very much on our minds, as indeed it appears to be on yours! No sooner had we released the new Circus (see below) than we were bombarded with email from members worried that all that work on the Circus meant we wouldn't be doing an Advent Calendar this year.
Fear not (said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds)! This year our desktop (PC and Mac) offerings will be a brand new Advent Calendar, as well as the London calendar updated for 2012. Additionally, an iPad version of the London calendar is already available in the iTunes store, and we're hoping to release other tablet versions too! As ever, keep an eye open for our Newsletters for more information. (If you don't currently get our newsletters, log on and click My Details, and make sure you've opted in the check boxes are at the bottom of the page).
From the chariot races and gladiator fights of Ancient Rome to the freak shows and menageries of the Victorian era, from the spectacular displays of the Moscow State Circus to contemporary nouveau cirque, circuses have long been part of our culture. Most of us will have fond childhood memories of the excitement, sounds and smells of the Big Top. The circus even inspired John Lennon's song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite! in Sergeant Pepper. And of course, it has not been without controversy, particularly with regard to the treatment of animals; in recent years many countries have passed legislation restricting or banning the use of wild animals in circuses.
Happily, our own interpretation of the circus will be entirely free of animal cruelty! This is jacquielawson.com, so obviously there will be animals! but ours are mere flickerings of liquid crystal before your eyes, through which we hope to capture the magic of the circus right there on your desktop.
The launch date for the Jacquie Lawson Circus is very soon, and after months of effort we can't wait to see what you all think! If you'd like prompt notification of the release, do watch out for our Newsletters or better still, download our Quick Send Widget.
If you look towards the bottom of our e-card category pages, you can still see some of the cards dating right back to the early days of this website, and it's fascinating to see how the style has evolved and yet in so many ways remained constant. As computers have grown more powerful and animation techniques have become more sophisticated, our cards have grown in sophistication and complexity; and of course, as new artists such as Sally Lisney and John Bloom have joined us, they've added their own distinctive touches. But in spite of this, all the cards even the note card range seem to have a certain style which makes them unmistakeably JL.
That may be about to change!
In a few weeks' time we'll be launching the first two cards in a brand new series. They're lightly animated sketches, humorous in content, and based on well-known quotations or epigrams. We hope they'll appeal in numerous situations where our existing e-cards and note cards don't quite fit the bill: maybe to a more masculine audience (we're always being asked for more "man" cards!), or to younger viewers and those who don't want to spend 60 seconds or thereabouts watching a full-length e-card. Or just to people who aren't into dogs, cats, teddy bears and flowers!
The new range will of course be in addition to our existing e-cards, which we'll continue to develop as before so don't worry: Chudleigh, Bertie and all the others aren't ready for retirement yet!
Fans who have been with us since the beginning of jacquielawson.com will remember that almost all the early cards described the antics of Jacquie's labrador dog, Chudleigh. Times change and our e-cards now embrace a wide range of subjects, but some of our most popular cards are still those featuring dogs and cats.
Maybe part of the reason for this popularity is that almost all the animals we've incorporated into our e-cards have been drawn from life, and based on real-life pets belonging to the artists. There's nothing like having a dog chasing leaves in the garden or a kitten climbing up your new curtains to alert you to their idiosyncratic characters, their fluid body movements, and the expressions on their faces.
Some years ago one of our longest-serving artists, Sally Lisney, introduced Bertie the spaniel and Fluff the kitten - not to mention an entire tribe of musical teddy bears - to the jacquielawson.com family. Happily the teddy bears are not based on live pets: but when Sally recently decided (under pressure from her daughter, she assures me) to acquire two new kittens, it was only a matter of time before their digital twins would be seen on our pages.
And sure enough, a new birthday card featuring Figaro and Twink will be out shortly!
One of the great traditions of a British Christmas is the annual round-robin "family newsletter". Usually it comes from acquaintances with whom you thought (and maybe even hoped!) you'd lost touch, and is peppered with references to little Johnny's Distinction in his piano exam (when you know full well that little Johnny has bananas for fingers), and to exciting events such as the new kitten, the family caravanning holiday, and the village fete. And as often as not there's a photo of their wonderful children, just to remind you how cute they are.
Well, we're thrilled to be able to tell you that from this Christmas, you'll be able to send your annual round-robin letter electronically, courtesy of the Jacquie Lawson Christmas Letter! Of course, the artwork and music will be every bit as beautiful and tasteful as in any Jacquie Lawson e-card; and of course, since you are a Jacquie Lawson member, your round-robin letter will be highly erudite, full of witty remarks and literary references, and it won't mention little Johnny's piano exam at all. But - thanks to the wondrous skills of our technical team - you will be able to include your own photo of your little darlings!
Christmas will never be the same again.
As many of our fans will remember, the highlight of Christmas 2010 was the launch of a brand new idea: our downloadable animated Advent Calendar. If you didn't get a copy, you missed a real treat - but fear not: our e-mailbag has been bursting at the seams with requests for a repeat performance, and we've already started working on a brand new Advent Calendar for Christmas 2011. I'm not allowed to give away too many details, but since it's midsummer here now, the snapshot below seemed particularly appropriate!
Over the last decade or two, e-mail has become such a part of our lives that we sometimes wonder how on earth we ever managed without it. But its convenience and informality come at a price. The format seems to encourage laziness in composition, and carelessly-written e-mails can often appear unintentionally abrupt or even downright rude.
And "smileys" are not an acceptable way of expressing ones feelings! ;-(
The whole process of composition and delivery make email one of the most intrinsically unattractive forms of correspondence ever invented. How can a monochrome message, harshly lit up on a computer screen in a functional but charmless typeface, ever compete for beauty with a hand-written letter, carefully composed on vellum with a green-inked fountain pen?
E-cards, of course, provide an attractive electronic alternative to the bald and boring e-mail, but sending someone a 60-second animation with background music to boot isn't appropriate for all circumstances.
Maybe our new note cards will help to fill the gap. They will allow our members to send the most attractive form of electronic correspondence we've yet seen, with gorgeous designs painted by Jacquie's team (see below), and with plenty of room for epistolary masterpieces, but with all the convenience of an e-card. Maybe they'll encourage people to compose their messages with more care, too.
And no smileys!
Our e-cards can take weeks or months from concept to completion, and everything has to be planned well in advance, especially our more complex Christmas offerings. So one of the challenges of working for jacquielawson.com is the need to get into a Christmassy mood when everyone else is soaking up the sun!
Back in August we gathered together our little group of "herald angels" - Emma, Gemma, India, Izzie, Marina and Meg - to sing a selection of carols for this Christmas's productions. The neighbours must have thought we were mad! Here they are:
The second photo above is a snapshot of our latest Christmas project. We're not revealing too much detail yet, but if you look closely you might guess what we've been up to! All I can say at the moment is that it is easily the most ambitious animation project that we have undertaken, and it'll add a whole new dimension to your and your children's Christmas. We'll give you full details in early November, once we've finished testing it!
It's fascinating sometimes to see how each e-card develops from initial sketches, through detailed drawings and paintings, and then into the digital domain with the addition of animation and effects. Often the scene can change dramatically through that process, as the examples below show. The first image is a painting of a pumpkin patch, painted by Bev Pask-Hughes (see below). The second is a screenshot from our forthcoming Halloween card, with a few electronically added effects (and a rather splendid tree)!
The new Halloween card will be released in mid-October and fans of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals are in for a treat. But that's all I can give away right now!
Just looking back over previous entries on this page, I realise that the first entry I made was this time last year, discussing the whys and wherefores of a British e-cards site regularly publishing e-cards celebrating America's independence!
And here we are again. Another year, another July 4th card. This year's card will once again feature Chudleigh, the chocolate Labrador whose exploits have enlivened many an e-card over the years. The card is being drawn by John Bloom - as the only American on our team he seemed like a good choice for this one! I can't tell you too much more for fear of spoiling the surprise, but the image below will serve as a bit of a tease!
It is often said that the British talk a lot about the weather, and if that is so then the last few months have given us plenty to talk about. For the last twenty years or so, snow has been something of a rarity in England and for many children and even teenagers, a few inches of snowfall in February 2009 was their first ever experience of sledding, building snowmen and all the other childish joys which the white stuff brings.
But this winter we've barely had a week without at least a wintry flurry, and Lurgashall was completely cut off from the outside world for four days in December. Even the local policeman in his four-wheel-drive Range Rover got stuck in a snowdrift trying to get to an outlying hamlet, and Jacquie's addiction to the Daily Telegraph crossword was forcibly suspended, about which she complained bitterly.
The photo below shows Molly gazing across Lurgashall cricket green, clearly wondering what on earth the world was coming to. But the most stunning image of the winter so far has to be the NASA photograph which we've reproduced below, showing clearly the outline of the British Isles, drenched in white.
However, contrary to the idealised images in our e-cards, Christmas Day was as usual completely snow-free!
Christmas is of course our busiest time of year and we always try to make some really special cards for the whole of the holiday season. This often means starting work on them while the weather is still warm and the swimming pool beckons, which is an odd time to be thinking about Christmas (unless of course you live in Australia or New Zealand)! This year, our new colleague John Bloom was first off with the holiday cards, and could be seen in August in shorts and a t-shirt, drawing Christmas trees and tinsel...!
John first came to our attention when working for another e-card company which was (rather cheekily, we thought) making cards featuring a Labrador dog which bore an uncanny resemblance to our friends Molly and Chudleigh, and - even more cheekily - was doing it rather well. So we're very excited that John is now on our team, and in the time he's been with us he's produced some fantastic cards. He works closely with Bev (see Proper Painting below), and you'll definitely be able to see her influence in his Christmas card. But I can't tell you any more about it - except we think you'll love it!
Computers are wonderful things. But there are some things that are best left in what a scientist might call the analogue domain - the sphere of human endeavour that doesn't involve reducing everything to bits and bytes. Painting pictures is one of those things. For all the fancy digital tricks you can play in Photoshop and the like, there is nothing to beat the delicacy of colour and texture obtainable from a few paintbrushes and a carefully selected palette of watercolours, gouache, and so forth.
That's why many of the background scenes, floral designs, and other elements of Jacquie Lawson e-cards are initially created not by manipulating pixels on a screen but by applying paint to paper, and Beverley Pask-Hughes is our resident master of this infinitely expressive art. Once the original paintings have been completed, they're scanned into the computer, trimmed and generally tidied up, and then the laborious process of animation starts.
And that is one of the many things that differentiate Jacquie Lawson e-cards from the rest!
If you look carefully at the picture of Bev's desk below you can see the beginnings of this year's Hallowe'en card. And in case you were wondering, Bev did tidy up her desk before this photo was taken. Yes, honestly.
Last month's "Behind the Scenes" reminded me that one of the most popular e-cards from the early days of jacquielawson.com was From Sea to Shining Sea - the July 4th card featuring underwater scenes which finally make up a collage in the form of the Great Seal of the US. At the time we were a little concerned that people might object to such a great national symbol being made up of seafood - like a sort of patriotic "plat de fruits de mer" - but in the end it turned out to be massively popular, and the card got millions of hits.
We've been working on another "underwater" card recently and you should see it on the website in the next couple of weeks. I'm not allowed to disclose the ending, but it's very atmospheric and I'm sure it'll appeal to children especially. Here's a screenshot as a teaser...
jacquielawson.com has published a new e-card for Independence Day almost every year since the site was started. Being a British e-cards site, this may seem rather odd - although perhaps you could argue that the loss of our most troublesome colony deserves to be celebrated! But in fact the first July 4th card was published in 2002 as a mark of goodwill to our transatlantic cousins after the horrific events of September 2001, and it was so popular with our members that July 4th became a firm date in the JL calendar.
Over the years we've featured Chudleigh raising the US flag, we've seen the Great Seal appear as a collage of aquatic life, we've explored all the State Flowers and all the State Birds, and we've even had a marching band made up of teddy bears. This year, the card has been created by Jacquie's niece Sally Lisney, and it features her spaniel Bertie, who you'll have seen in other recent cards such as Christmas Visitors. Here's a photo of them together!