The art of Gift Giving

With the prelude to the annual festivities of Christmas comes that beneficent yet arduous task: present buying. It provokes in me a profound ambivalence. The personal reward that comes from finding something that will bring pleasure to a loved one is tempered by a unique stress and anxiety – but will they like it? And, more importantly, will they no longer like me if they don’t?

Elsie Powell, Cats Cartoon - Original early 20th-century pen & ink drawing

 Elsie Powell, early 20th-century Cats Cartoon - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

It seems to me that gift giving is at its most rewarding when it is most meaningful, and this is why when giving forms of art – books, music, films, pictures – the stakes are high.

In some respects, choosing a gift is a test of how well we know the recipient. Not only do we want to please them, we want to impress them with how well we know their tastes and desires: in short, how much we care.

At Somerset & Wood, dealing in art and the artefacts of material culture, the objects we encounter often tell a story about the lives of their creators and owners. One of the most intimate examples of creative gift giving is the commonplace books of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

                   Commonplace Book    Commonplace Book

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Young women in particular would collect the contributions of their family, friends and acquaintances in the form of poetry, proverbs and small drawings. We have come across a number of these charming books, and the content is often moralising in theme. Poems such as “What is love”, “How to Live” and “What is a friend” immortalise their authors on the page and communicate to the recipient the values of friendship and love.

        

    From 1886 Nurse's Album                                            From 1902 Album

    

  From 1921 St Brandon's Student Album               From 1917 First World War Album

In the art world the lines between private and public consumption are often fluid, and whilst art can be used in personal transactions such as these, it can also become public currency. Picasso famously exploited the idea that small artworks may be exchanged for goods as a form of payment. The story goes that when the time came to pay at the end of a meal in the restaurants of Paris, rather than parting with cash, he would draw a quick sketch on a napkin or placemat.

Pablo Picasso, Dachsund, Pen on paper napkin

Damien Hirst, known for being commercially canny and seeing the value of his art as part of the works themselves, has said, "I think art's the greatest currency in the world. Gold, diamonds, art -- I think they are equal ... I think it's a great thing to invest in."

The timelessness of art is part of what makes it so valuable as currency or gift – its value, rather than being intrinsic to its material, is locked within it as an unique expression of ideas. The great bequests to museums and galleries, helping to build superlative national collections of art, are evidence of the infinite cultural value of art and its continuing role in acquisition and exchange.

I find that giving, on a personal level, always contains the conundrum: is it possible to put one’s own tastes aside and chose a gift purely on supposing the recipients tastes? Perhaps things are never this simple, and in fact, it is the coincidence of tastes, of shared likes, that we celebrate through gift giving, an unspoken nod towards complicity and mutual understanding of the world.

E.C.W., Robin - Original 1921 watercolour painting

When we chose to give art this Christmas we give a little of ourselves. So - no pressure, choose away, chose wisely, chose generously, and find joy in giving this Christmas. That reminds me, I had better get on with it myself…

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