From 1953 to 1956, Dorothy L. Sayers produced the text for four illustrated religious-themed cards with the London publisher Hamish Hamilton. The cards featured a unique combination of artwork with accompanying text to tell a story, and were designed for commercial sales and written for children in particular. This “Off the Shelf” post will explore the history behind the creation of the cards as well as Sayers’s involvement.
Hamish Hamilton approached Sayers with the idea of creating an illustrated Christmas card in a letter dated January 12, 1953. The publisher had produced a secular-themed Christmas card the previous year titled “The Days Before Christmas,” which he included with the letter to Sayers as an example of what he had in mind. Sales for this card had increased steadily, particularly due to the innovative design of the card featuring small doors to fold back revealing a picture for each day in December leading up to Christmas. Hamilton wrote in the letter:
“As you doubtless know, similar cards have for years been produced in Germany and other parts of the Continent and are widely sold before Christmas. For some reason the experiment had never been tried in this country until last year. The Continental cards are not accompanied by a text, but we added one for the double reason that we feel that it adds to the child’s interest and that in this way Purchase Tax is avoided as the card becomes a book.”
“Advent calendars” as they are known today were first printed on paper in Germany in the early 1900s. Assuming Hamilton’s statement is correct, this means they did not come to England until December 1952, with the unique addition of text to help tell the story featured in the full page illustration and behind the calendar doors.
While initially Sayers responded to Hamilton by saying she was too busy with other work and would require at least 12 months before she could take on a new project, by January 22 it is evident that she had accepted his proposition and agreed to provide text for the card by the end of February. It is not clear exactly what made Sayers decide to undertake this work, but there was at least one phone call with Hamilton mentioned in the letters, and these additional statements in Hamilton’s January 12 letter may have proved persuasive:
“A number of people … suggested that we should produce a card with a religious theme this year, and it occurred to us immediately that you would be the ideal person … I don’t believe it would take you more than an hour or two, if as much, and it might well prove as remunerative as a book.”
Hamilton paired Sayers with Viennese-born artist Fritz Wegner to do the accompanying illustration for her text. The card was to be named “The Days of Christ’s Coming,” and it would tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Laura Simmons writes of their collaboration:
“[Sayers] was intimately involved in suggesting details for Wegner’s illustrations and even contributed preliminary sketches, but gave him free reign in completing them.” (“’Seeking but to Do Thee Grace’: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Illustrated Religious Cards.” VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Vol. 24. Wheaton, IL: The Marion E. Wade Center, 2007: 53)
Wegner would go on to illustrate 3 of the 4 cards that Sayers wrote.
An advance copy of the Christmas card was sent to Sayers on September 15, 1953, and she writes to Hamilton the following day that she is so pleased with the artwork, she would be willing to put in an offer to purchase the original piece (we never learn if she did so or not). She also asks for a half dozen advance copies to use for publicity to promote the publication, and 5 dozen copies at her author’s discounted price to hand out. The card was advertised on television on December 9, and Hamilton reports that sales of the card are very respectable. “The Days of Christ’s Coming” features 27 doors rather than the typical 24 or 25 doors. A review of the card states that the doors were intended to be opened from December 14 until January 7, including both Christmas and Epiphany. (Canter, Doris. “Books for Older Children.” The Friend. December 4, 1953: 112-113)
Sayers’s text was later re-published in 1960 as a bound picture book format in New York by Harper, and in London by Hamish Hamilton.
The book carried the same title, The Days of Christ’s Coming, and also featured illustrations by Fritz Wegner that, while similar to the earlier ones he did for the card, were new compositions which embodied a style reminiscent of medieval paintings. The text, itself, was identical to that included with the 1953 card, and tells the story of the nativity through the flight to Egypt. The correspondence held by the Wade Center only covers the time period of the creation of the Christmas card, so the inspiration to produce the picture book remains unknown.
On February 1, 1954, Sayers mentions in a letter to Hamilton that she is giving thought to the idea of making a 1955 “Easter card.” Sometime between April and June, the project shifts from a single card to 2 cards: one for Easter, and the other telling a similar story but with a few different elements presented in a manner that would make it appropriate for sale at any time of year. Sayers brainstorms an impressive list of possible occasions the card would be appropriate for in addition to Easter: confirmations, first communions, Sunday school prizes, godchildren’s birthdays, ordinations, etc. Hamilton calls Sayers’s list of ideas “really inspired!” in his reply dated July 12, 1954. The two cards became: “The Story of Easter” showing the Passion Week, death, and resurrection of Christ; and “The Story of Adam and Christ,” outlining Christ’s life as well as a series of other stories central to the core of Christianity and salvation: Adam and Eve, Abraham, the Passover, the Prophets, and the Last Judgement.
Sayers acknowledged a fundamental difficulty in creating the Easter card since the timing of the story elements does not warrant opening a single door per day during Passion Week. For example, some events occur only hours apart in the timeline. Thus, the decision was made to simply tell the story, and allow the parents and children reading the card to determine how and when to open the doors depicting each event.
Hamilton writes to Sayers on June 18, 1954 that Fritz Wegner will not have sufficient time to illustrate both cards in production, and he assigns another artist named Biro to work on “The Story of Easter.” He reports that Biro “in addition to having done a number of most effective jacket designs for us has also done a further card for this Christmas … I am sure that you would find him every bit as pleasant and intelligent as Wegner.”
Wegner meanwhile began work on the “Story of Adam and Christ” card which Sayers and Hamilton had determined would not feature “advent calendar” style doors, but would instead open as a fold-out card with text on either side of a brilliant central stained-glass window illustration, with panels depicting story episodes from the text. Wegner was enthused to work on a project unlike any other he had yet done. He included a small card template, pictured here, with his October 9, 1954 letter to Sayers to see what she thought of the design.
Biro’s progress for “The Story of Easter” card underwent several rounds of back and forth critique from Sayers. She wrote on August 25, 1954 after seeing some early designs:
“Christ is frightful. He has a silly face, and a horrible wiggly cloak, and He looks as though He were dropping into tea; neither does He look as though He were about to sit at the right hand of God the Father – and in fact there is nothing for Him to sit on.”
Biro responded with good humor to the criticisms in a letter to Sayers on September 28, 1954:
“May I again thank you for the enormous help you gave me throughout this job, and for your really constructive criticism which, even if you hadn’t made so amusing, would not have bothered or hurt anyone. I do hope that perhaps I may have another chance to collaborate with you again.”
Sayers gave her final blessing on the proof of the artwork on October 4, 1954 in a letter to Hamilton:
“Yes – well, I think we had better pass Christ into Heaven now – not perhaps with First-class Honours … Let us say that he has ‘satisfied the examiners’.”
The final proofs of both cards were sent to Sayers for review in December and January, and despite one oversight by the printer (the final 15 lines of the Last Judgement were inadvertently omitted), the cards were approved for publication in 1955.
Hamilton’s letter to Sayers dated February 21, 1955 mentions his pleasure in hearing that Sayers is interested in producing another Christmas card, this time depicting “The Story of Noah’s Ark.” Sayers begins work on the text for the card right away, but writes on March 28 to Hamilton that she is postponing further work until she gets a list of the animals Fritz Wegner intends to include in the illustration. Several delays occur and Sayers receives a draft of Wegner’s Noah’s ark illustration in August, but without the promised list of animals. Further delays caused by health and travel lead to Hamilton concluding that “The Story of Noah’s Ark” will not be ready in time for a Christmas 1955 publication date. Sayers waits until December 7 when she writes an exasperated letter to the publishing house beseeching them to get the list of animals from Wegner so she can finish work on the text:
“We have been waiting for this LIST OF ANIMALS more months now than the waters of the Flood rested upon the earth, and though it has been promised many times I see as yet no rainbow of hope. If it possible to extract a LIST OF ANIMALS from Mr. Wegner without doing irreparable and permanent damage to his nervous system I should be glad to have it; if not, a blunt declaration that no LIST OF ANIMALS is to be looked for would spare me the horrors of suspense.”
Sayers mentions the LIST OF ANIMALS eight times in the letter, including a postscript, with her characteristic humor. Wegner contritely sends a handwritten letter with the LIST OF ANIMALS to Sayers on December 12, 1955, saying:
“I also felt a little uneasy about identifying all the animals which in some instances were not very accurately drawn. Mistakes of this kind would soon produce a flood of letters from young and old zoologists.”
The color proof followed in March 1956, and the card was presumably printed shortly thereafter. The final result was an extremely lush scene full of intrigue with animals both in plain sight, and waiting to be discovered by child readers behind the illustrated doors. Sayers included a playful ending for any children worried that an animal had been left out: “And if you can think of any animals that aren’t in the picture – why, they must be inside the Ark!”
Besides the four cards that were published between 1953 and 1956, the correspondence between Sayers and Hamilton reveals that at least 3 other ideas were considered for card production. In a letter to Sayers dated March 26, 1953, the publisher writes that “Mr. Hamilton does not feel we have the organisation to market your charming CAT’S CHRISTMAS CAROL.” No doubt this was a disappointment to Sayers, who loved cats and designed several personal Christmas cards featuring them. It is interesting to note that even though at first Sayers felt she had no time to devote to creating a Christmas card in January 1953, she is suggesting other project ideas just two months later.
Hamilton also turns down her idea for “Mr. Spooner’s Transformations” in a September 22, 1955 letter stating that “we do feel that the Christmas and Easter cards are as much as we can cope with and are more in our line. My own feeling is that an educational publisher might be very interested.” “Spooner’s Transformations” refers to prints created by publisher William Spooner in the 1800s, specializing in lithographs of a semi-popular and humorous character.
The third idea Sayers proposed that did not end up being created seems to have enjoyed more exploration than the previous two ideas. Sayers states in a letter to Hamilton dated March 28, 1955 that she sent the “Tale from Boiardo” draft to Wegner as she thought the story would be suitable for an illustrated card format. She suggested that if Wegner had interest in illustrating her story, he was welcome to show the content to Hamilton. Hamilton voices interest in seeing the Boiardo content in a letter response to Sayers on March 31, but that is the last mention of this idea.
The manuscript drafts Sayers prepared to send to Wegner for the Boiardo card still exist, and are available in the Wade Center’s Dorothy L. Sayers Manuscript Collection (MS-84) and in the Religious Illustrated Cards and Booklets Archive under the title “The Enchanted Garden.” The story is adapted by Sayers from the Orlando Innamorato by Renaissance author Matteo Maria Boiardo, and tells the story of Roland’s adventures to gain access to, and ultimately destroy, a walled enchanted garden. Unfortunately, only the text for this story card exists — in both handwritten and typed drafts. There is no evidence that Wegner began work on any related illustrations. Production may also have fallen by the wayside due to Sayers’s untimely death in December 1957.
All of the published religious cards by Dorothy L. Sayers are available for viewing at the Wade Center, along with related manuscripts and correspondence. For more information, see the “related materials” section of the Religious Illustrated Cards and Booklets Archive. Content from the letters of Dorothy L. Sayers was used by kind permission of the Sayers Estate via David Higham Associates.
Bibliography Listing of the Religious Illustrated Cards:
- Sayers, Dorothy L. The Days of Christ’s Coming. Illustrated by Fritz Wegner. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd.,  (published card, call number: BT315.2 .S29 1953)
- Sayers, Dorothy L. The Story of Adam and Christ. Fritz Wegner. London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd.,  (published card, call number: PR6037.A95 S767 1955)
- Sayers, Dorothy L. The Story of Easter. 1st edition. Illustrations by B. Biro. London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd.,  (published card, call number: BV55 .S29 1955)
- Sayers, Dorothy L. The Story of Noah’s Ark. Fritz Wegner. London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., . (published card, call number: PR6037.A95 S76 1956)
- Sayers, Dorothy L. The Days of Christ’s Coming. illustrated by Fritz Wegner. London: Hamilton, 1960 / New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960. (published book, call numbers: BT315.2 .S29 1960 and BT315.2 .S29 1960b)