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Illustrator Carol Lawson’s work is synonymous with Christmas

Santa in the Clouds <i>(Image: carol lawson)</i>
Santa in the Clouds (Image: carol lawson)

From luxury biscuit tins to clever pastiche paintings and cards that Gordon Ramsey snaps up, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without something gorgeously festive by Newick illustrator Carol Lawson – including our bespoke front cover image of Santa at the Seven Sisters

If you’ve ever popped into Marks and Spencer for a luxury tin of shortbread as a present – or to indulge in! - there’s a good chance you’ve unwittingly picked up a Carol Lawson design. In recent years you’d have been hard pushed to miss Carol’s Christmas artwork in your local M&S.

Great British Life: One of Carol's M&S biscuit tin designsOne of Carol's M&S biscuit tin designs (Image: carol lawson)

Indeed, one year, while grabbing last-minute stocking fillers at that box of festive delights – the M&S food hall in Shoreham – I found it quite tricky manoeuvring my heaving trolley around a giant display of Carol’s biscuit tins featuring a boisterous Scottie dog bursting out of a tartan box of shortbread petticoat tails. Then, once at the check-out, there she was again – one of her Christmas illustrations splashed across the December issue of Sussex Life.

Aficionados of the magazine will know that the Newick-based illustrator is no stranger to our seasonal issues, having provided the cover art on no fewer than three previous occasions. This year is no exception – and can you blame us? Her winning combination of festive charm, humour and immense artistic flair is impossible to resist.

This year’s specially-commissioned design is, of course, a humorous take on John Hassall’s iconic British railway poster, Skegness is SO Bracing – only a plump Santa has replaced the jolly fisherman and Carol has swapped the windswept sands of Skegness for a snowy Seven Sisters backdrop.

‘The challenge was to create the background in the style of Hassall, so that the whole image felt authentic,’ says Carol. ‘I also had to find an illustration that people could immediately relate to and recognise.’

Great British Life: Sussex Life December 2023 coverSussex Life December 2023 cover (Image: Sussex Life)


Carol clearly has enormous fun rejigging famous artworks, producing an entire series of affectionate pastiches of famous paintings, with Father Christmas making an unexpected guest appearance in everything from Sir Henry Raeburn’s The Reverend Robert Walker Skating to Rene Magritte’s Portrait of Edward James.

In fact, Dickens has competition on his hands because Carol has been cornering the Yuletide market for quite some time. She first began injecting colour into our Christmases in the 1980s when she was chosen to design two covers for the festive issues of the Radio Times.

‘As you can imagine, these were hugely prestigious commissions, not least because many great illustrators had worked for them,’ she says. ‘At the time, the bumper Christmas issue sold a whopping 11m copies and designing the covers provided a major platform for my work.

‘Unfortunately, the second commission coincided with the 1987 hurricane. I was in the middle of doing the artwork when our telephone lines went down and we lost all our electricity. Roads were blocked with fallen trees, the deadline was fast approaching and I had to work round the clock – even by candlelight – to get it finished on time.’

Carol’s first Radio Times cover illustration, in 1983, was an imaginative take on the much-loved Christmas carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. ‘Each element of the carol made up the tree,’ she says, ‘so, for example, I had seven swans a-swimming and six geese a-laying adorning the outer branches, a partridge in a pear tree in the middle surrounded by two turtle doves and five gold rings, and then eight maids a-milking and 10 drummers drumming forming the base.’

Great British Life: Her famous Scottie dog designHer famous Scottie dog design (Image: carol lawson)

Her second design, featuring two Victorian children singing from a carol sheet, was actually an elaborate puzzle. The magazine set their readers a challenge to see how many carols they could name from the visual clues Carol had ingeniously dotted around the page.

‘It generated a huge response,’ she beams. ‘Some years ago my Radio Times artwork was exhibited at the University of Brighton and people said they could still remember those covers, which is amazing after all this time.’

The Radio Times commission evidently set the ball rolling because luxury Christmas manufacturers have been banging on her door ever since. She has designed commercial packaging for some of our most illustrious retailers – from biscuit tins for Crabtree and Evelyn to Harrods’ festive food hamper. She realised just how far her appeal had spread when she saw Kelsey Grammer clasping one of her cookie tins on an episode of Frasier.

Perhaps her most prestigious commissions have been for the upmarket Piccadilly department store, Fortnum and Mason. One illustration, depicting the Lord Mayor’s coach from the tale of Dick Whittington, was so beloved by Fortnum’s that they printed it on crackers, chocolates and even a tea caddy. But perhaps the icing on the (Christmas) cake was Carol’s delightful merry-go-round design for their luxury biscuit tin which doubled up as a rotating musical box.

Great British Life: Cubist Santa is one of the artist's clever pastiche creationsCubist Santa is one of the artist's clever pastiche creations (Image: Carol Lawson)

‘For the tin designs, I’m usually given the concept as a rough layout, often based on Victorian or early 20th-century illustrations which have been melded together,’ says Carol. ‘You have to work swiftly. One year M&S didn’t approach me until October with their Christmas tin requests.’

Carol’s love of fine detail and jewel-like colour – inherited from the Pre-Raphaelite painters she so admires – seems especially suited to this festive season with its celebration of hearth and home. She even uses the same watercolour paints the Pre-Raphaelites used, famed for their translucency, and ground by hand to a unique recipe by C Roberson’s of Camden Town. Sadly, the family firm stopped selling to the public in the 1970s and she has been using a depleted stash of remaindered stock ever since. ‘I’m having to resort to splitting open tubes to get the last bits out of the corners,’ she grimaces.

She says there’s no sure-fire formula when producing Christmas designs, although it’s best to keep them bright and cheery. ‘What sells?’ she muses. ‘If only I knew. One year I did a picture called Winter Garden featuring a spherical topiary tree and I added a sprig of holly on top so that it resembled a Christmas pudding. Celebrity chefs Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay both chose it for their corporate Christmas card. I couldn’t help wondering if they’d sent it to each other.’

Carol grew up in Giggleswick in the Yorkshire Dales and showed artistic promise from an early age. Having set her sights on becoming an art teacher, she completed a year’s foundation course at Harrogate College of Art. Little realising there were jobs to be had in illustration and design, she then applied for the fine art course at Brighton College of Art, but her tutors suggested her skills might be better suited to graphic design. It was only when she switched again – to illustration – that she found her true calling.

Great British Life: Carol's designs have adorned everything from crackers to biscuit tinsCarol's designs have adorned everything from crackers to biscuit tins (Image: Carol Lawson)

While at Brighton Carol met her future husband, fellow illustrator Chris McEwan, and after they married, they worked in Paris and London as freelance illustrators before settling again in Sussex.

Carol is also a gifted book illustrator, though perhaps her crowning achievement was a series she wrote as well as illustrated called The Upstairs Downstairs Bears. As the title suggests, it centres around an Edwardian family of teddybears who reside in a grand townhouse with their live-in servants.

Such was its popularity that in 2001 ITV ran a series based on the books, in which the animators painstakingly created all the domestic flourishes that had made the original illustrations so delightful, such as the miniature copper moulds, pots, pans and little porcelain plates displayed on the dresser in the downstairs bears’ kitchen.

Carol naturally produced a festive edition of the books entitled The Upstairs Downstairs Bears at Christmas which features enchanting illustrations in which bears dressed in woollen coats, deerstalker hats and mufflers gather round an entrance merrily singing carols beneath glowing lanterns or pull a sledge laden with a Christmas tree (and a few baby bears) through a magical snowy village. For adults, as well as children, it is a world of pure escapism which draws on the very best traditions of the Golden Age illustrators.

Great British Life: Klimt Santa shows her beautiful use of colourKlimt Santa shows her beautiful use of colour (Image: carol lawson)

When I ask how she conjures up the essence of Christmas, Carol answers in one word – ‘colour’. ‘It’s odd because I usually wear black,’ she says. ‘All the colour in my life is in my work – which, for anything Christmassy, is usually warm golds and reds. Christmases in my books are sumptuous, foodie and slightly Dickensian, with lots of detail and sparkly things.’

And does she actually like Christmas? ‘Yes, I love it. On Christmas Day, it’s usually just the two of us and it’s the one day where we simply indulge ourselves. Before and after, it’s family and friends, but on the actual day we just sit back and relax. While sipping something festive, we phone loved ones before tucking into roast chicken with all the trimmings. After lunch we fall asleep in front of the fire, though hopefully we wake up in time for the King’s speech.’

It sounds magical. The only thing that’s missing is an afternoon cuppa and a dip into the Christmas selection box... illustrated by Carol, naturally.

To find out more about Carol Lawson’s work, Her Christmas cards will be on sale at a Christmas fair at The Grange, Rottingdean, between December 1 and 17.


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