Decorated Letters

The art of correspondence.

My love affair with illustrated letters began as correspondence between myself and my grandmother, varying between humorous cartoons and colourful illustrations for the simple delight that receiving a letter can bring. Add this to the surprise of being given something so beautifully crafted and the time put into making it by hand, and you have a unique gift which is infinitely more personal than an online message.

The letters themselves are a joy to create and I'm endlessly inspired by the concept. In its own right as an artist's brief, fitting an illustration into the confines of an envelope and exploring the relationship between the artwork and the address, is a fantastic challenge. Simple embellishment is something that any creative person might add to their letters; a stamp or lino print, stickers or cartoons, full illustrations or simple pictures, the small paper rectangle is your oyster.

Additionally there's the physicality of a letter and the ability to enclose small things such as tickets or scraps of fabric to the particular delight of small children (or indeed, anyone). The letters themselves can also be unconventional, made of origami folds in various shapes and colours.

Here are three examples of such intriguing but easy folds:

A few ideas of things to draw on envelopes:

  • Yourself or the recipient
  • Additional stamps of your own design
  • An illustration to complement the contents of your letter
  • Botanicals and spring flowers
  • Animals and insects

Nice things to enclose inside your letters are:

  • Pressed flowers
  • Tokens or vouchers (eg for cinema tickets or a hug)
  • Small sweets or chocolates
  • Stickers
  • Paper crafts
  • Tea bags
  • Buttons
  • Anything else you can think of.

Letter art is by no means a new trend. Originating as a pastime and means of keeping in touch with loved ones, surviving correspondence mostly comes from unknown Victorian artists whose letters remain as snippets into the lives of everyday people. With the introduction of postage stamps, and later the penny post, more people began to explore the placement of stamps and illustrative potential of envelopes.

More recent notable artists who have dabbled in decorated letters are Lucian Freud, Emma Chichester-Clark, Tony Ross, Gladys Nilson, Edward Gorey and Yves Saint Laurent. There are also many beautiful examples by the Washington Calligraphers Guild and in the Smithsonian's collection.

As an artist, I strive for beauty in my work. It doesn't necessarily have to be conventional beauty, but an image must sing with that unidentifiable something that makes it a pleasure to look at. I like the idea of making ordinary objects unnecessarily but exquisitely beautiful for no other purpose than the smile someone gets upon looking at it.

If you're interested in Decorated Letters, I have a workshop coming up in the March and a tutorial available for instant download on my shop, here.

I hope you have enjoyed and are inspired by this blog post!

If you would like to correspond via decorated letters, I would be delighted to hear from you. You can send one to me at this address:

Valerian Illustration
April Cottage

If this article seems familiar you may have seen it published in Artists and Illustrators magazine in the June 2020 edition!


Image: Antique illustrated envelope image sourced from a Grosvenor philatelic auction.
Image: Illustrated letters from Edward Gorey to Peter Neumeyer from Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer.

Ms Emma Leyfield currently trading as 'Valerian'. The copyright to all images and graphics used within this website are owned by Valerian, or Valerian has sought the appropriate permissions to use them.

Trademark number: UK00003464494

April Cottage, Kilcott Road, Hillesley, Wotton-Under-Edge, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, GL12 7RJ