corfu postcards

Corfu Postcards - set of thirteen cards now only 8 euros including postage and packaging

This article, written by Hilary Paipeti, first appeared in The Corfiot Magazine.

Commercial postcards are generally judged to have been developed by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia in 1861. The fashion spread to Europe, and by 1870 they were all the rage. The first printed card appeared in 1870, and was a historical card, produced in association with the Franco-German War. The first advertising card appeared in 1872 in England. The first German card appeared in 1874. The Heligoland card of 1889 is considered the first multi-colored card ever printed. Cards with pictures of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 and 1890 gave the picture postcard a huge start on its way to mass popularity.

The first postcards, usually bearing vignette designs, were not originally intended for souvenirs but were for advertising purposes. Thus the first ones printed specifically for use as a souvenir were the cards placed on sale in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At first, writing was only allowed on the front of picture side of the card, but around the turn of the century, some countries began to permit the use of a ‘divided back’, allowing the front to be primarily for the picture or artwork and the back left for the address and message. In 1902, England became the first to allow divided back cards. France followed in 1904, Germany in 1905 and finally the United States in 1907. These changes brought in the ‘Golden Age’ of postcards, and millions were sold.

The first postcards featuring real photographs appeared around 1900. The hand-tinted type was produced in France and Belgium - photo postcards colored by hand, giving them a realistic look. Many were true works of art, but production was quickly discontinued when it was discovered that the - mostly female - workers were falling ill due to ingesting quantities of paint. The artists sat in rows while the postcards were passed down an ‘assembly line’ style, with each women responsible for a particular colour. The cards were small and the artwork detailed, forcing the women to wet the tip of their lead- contaminated brush with their lips as they worked.

Postcards declined with general use of the telephone as a way to keep in touch, and with movies as the new visual experience. With the growth of holidays by the sea, only the real photograph card market remained strong, helped by new technology which allowed publishers to print thousands of cards of one particular image. Postcard racks began to spring up at every tourist attraction. Cards showing views, as well as comic ones, were the most popular, and travel destinations exploited this popularity as a cheap way to advertise. The slightly smutty postcards, full of innuendo, that were sold in Blackpool during the peak of its popularity, must have helped draw in the hordes of workers from the industrial North.

But once holidays abroad were starting to replace visits to Blackpool, Skegness and Weston-super-Mare as the preferred break of the masses, imagine sitting in a chilly, bleak England and receiving through the post an image of blue seas and azure skies, with emerald hillsides dotted with little white-washed cottages rising from the water’s edge. How many holidays have been booked since then, and destinations chosen, on the basis of such images?

Every destination has its trademark image: Jordan - Petra, Aleppo - the fortress, Mykonos - the windmills, Lefkada - Myrtos Beach... and Corfu? Well, that view of Pontikonissi from Kanoni, of course! A cliche? Sure, but it remains one of the most-visited spots on the island, instantly recognizable as Corfu.

What a shame, then, that cards with views of Corfu are increasingly in the minority amongst souvenir postcards for sale. Have a look at the stock as the first visitors arrive, prompting the shopkeepers to roll out their stands. That panniered donkey walking up the alleyway could be a native of any island in the Greek world, as could that old man with the wrinkled visage. But at least they are not vulgar, like the ones displaying naked bums on the sand, or painted nipples, today’s equivalent of Blackpool smut. Whom do these encourage to visit? Only beer-swilling youths to Kavos, I would guess!

The best postcards of Corfu ever produced were reproductions of Angelos Giallinas’s gorgeous watercolours. They were printed in Corfu by the Aspiotis-ELKA printworks, which functioned in a large building, now a school, located behind the Ionian University on Kapodistrias Street. The postcards featured mainly village scenes, and are now collectors items.

Angelos Giallinas (1857-1939) is generally regarded as Corfu’s foremost watercolour artist, and his paintings, immensely popular during his lifetime, command high prices. Transparent and full of light, they capture the charm of Corfu. Much imitated (though never matched), it remains popular up to the present day. Giallinas travelled extensively in Greece and Europe, painting and exhibiting as he went. Among his most famous works are his views of Athens and its classical monuments, and a series featuring Constantinople, but his Corfiot landscapes are the best loved. And it was these that he made into postcards.

Their publication, which date from the decade of 1910 and onwards, was a clever commercial move which netted the artist a good income. It was the heyday of the Angleterre Hotel (Bella Venezia), where Europe’s aristocracy comprised the main clientele. The hotel was located above the Orpheas Cinema on Zambellis Street, next to the existing hotel of the same name (it was destroyed by German bombs on the night of 13 September 1943). The Aspiotis-ELKA printworks was just over the road (and the artist’s town house faces the Esplanade nearby), so the Giallinas cards would not have far to travel to their sale point! At the time, these cards carried the ‘wish you were here’ message out to Europe.

How many people visited Corfu after receiving a card featuring one of Giallinas’s lovely views? Vlaherena with Pontikonissi behind... Paleokastritsa’s bays and hinterland from the Monastery... The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George... a vista taking in Karoussades and the vale behind... rocks at Paleokastritsa... the Mourayia bathed in morning sunlight... the Peristyle of the Achillion with its statues... the Church of Agia Barbara in Potamos... view from the Pelekas summit... View of Pelekas village... the twin peaks of Pantokrator from the sea... the Old Fortress at dawn... Benitses (my own favourite)...and many more. Another artist whose work was reproduced on postcards was Vikentios Bocatsiambis (1856 - 1932: an almost exact contemporary of Giallinas). Also printed by the Aspiotis printworks, these cards appear to date from the 1940s and 50s, after the artist’s death. In contrast to the landscapes of Giallinas’s cards, these feature portraits of peasant ladies in costume, and serve as a record of the island’s lovely national dress. When Bocatsiambis was painting the costume varied from village to village; now, on show at touristic ‘Greek Nights’, it is almost completely restricted to the Gastouri wedding outfit.

Rifling through old cards and reading their backs, you find that they carry the ‘wish you were here’ message home (especially the ones in English; messages in French tend to be rambling accounts of the author’s health, and wishes that the recipient’s should be blooming; while ones in Greek are usually undecipherable). On the back of the Giallinas Mouse Island card, Ernie writes to his brother Con: ‘Herewith a few views of Corfu. As you see it is a curious place but it is really a very fine place and some of the scenery is lovely. If we are here much longer I think we shall be able to go bathing in the sea. Hoping you all like these.’ Since this card is not addressed or dated, and since he mentions ‘a few views’ and ‘these’, it seems Ernie sent an envelope containing several cards.

At the time, of course, photographs were rare, and few people had access to paintings, so the Giallinas cards would have constituted some of the very few images of Corfu in general circulation. Writing to a Miss M. Smith of 19 Walton Street in Oxford, Mary enthuses on another card (not by Giallinas): ‘This is the sort of thing we see at sunset. I should like you to see all the sights here.’ On a hand-coloured card showing a very rural Kanoni, Gwen writes to her friend Mrs Melissino in Piraeus: ‘I am “on tour” with Arthur we are enjoying ourselves immensely although Arthur is rather busy.’ The brief message, and an Austria stamp, lend veracity to her words! Many of the stamps are in themselves collector’s items. One black and white postcard showing the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens aptly carries a green stamp depicting a discus thrower. Kings stare into the distance on stamps dating from the period of their various reigns.

Originally, postcards were intended as advertising. But even when they developed as souvenirs, they still served as adverts which reflected their place of origin. Should Corfu, then, look to postcards to help transform its image - as the local authorities have been trying to do for years without much success? So... out with the smut, and in with the scenery. Perhaps we should ban any postcard that doesn’t depict a picture- postcard-pretty view of Corfu - and that way put our visitors to work promoting the island.

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