Wight Life

A Card for all Seasons

by Robert Bowyer

SOMETHING WE HAVE IN COMMON with Scotland, besides the rain, is J Arthur Dixon. This was brought home to me last summer when I was sitting in an hotel talking to the manager as we looked over the loch to the incomparably lovely Ardgour mountains, distracted only by a postcard of the same mountains — looking more splendid — that he was holding in his hand. 'We do it well in Scotland', he said tapping the legend 'J Arthur Dixon, Inverness.' My immediate reaction was that this was a particularly vigorous piece of Scottish nationalism, and it was not until I had sufficiently demonstrated my Isle of Wight allegiance that we agreed that the firm could exist in both idyllic places at one and the same time. I could have gone one better and proved that the firm started on the Island, in Shanklin in 1930, but I might then have been subdued by a passing Yorkshireman who could have claimed that it all began there.

The late John Arthur Dixon had been apprenticed to his father's printing firm and, full of Yorkshire energy, wanted to set up on his own. The attractions of the Isle of Wight were not confined to the countryside. He married an Island girl and bought a small printing firm in 1926. He founded the present company in 1930 and it became a limited liability company in 1934. He soon began to specialise in the production of brochures and other items by gravure, though the basic business continued to be general printing until 1937.

All good things come in casually, and, like many other enthusiasts with a camera, Mr & Mrs Dixon decided to take a picture of the Needles. It was late afternoon in 1936 and they were photographing into the sun so he used his hat to shade the lens. When the film was developed it looked just like moonlight. They called it 'Moonlight over the Needles' and it was reproduced and used as their own Christmas card that year. A salesman working for Dixons at the time said that if more cards could be produced like that he could sell thousands of them. So in the following year the company produced its first album of personalised Christmas cards. These were mainly monochrome gravure and were an immediate success. Production of these personalised Christmas cards continued until the war when the company suffered the usual war restrictions, but Mrs Dixon was able to carry on with the aid of a secretary. It was during this period that she introduced birthday cards.

Picture of Dixon's Factory

Dixon's Factory

Normal business was resumed in 1946, with a new line in Christmas cards and a special line of everyday greeting cards. The latter were mainly florals, pets and scenes. Since they were photographic subjects, and colour film was impossible to get at the time, the originals were photographed in black and white, and hand-coloured by Dixon's studio artists. These hand-coloured prints were then separated into the three primary colours required for the gravure printing process.

Picture of Dixon's artists working in their studio

Dixon's artists working in their studio

In 1950, the company decided to expand into the postcard market. This required larger premises, so the main printing works was moved from Shanklin to the present buildings on the Forest Road in Newport. Within four years it had outgrown these new premises and an additional factory was added at Inverness. A large proportion of Dixon viewcards are now produced there. To produce personalised Christmas cards on a commercial scale, the company needed type-setting and letter press printing equipment which could not be used at other times of the year. It was therefore decided to launch into the private notepaper and social stationery field in order to enable the plant to be used continuously. This business has grown from an initial £1,000 a year to become one of their major lines. If you get your own headed note-paper from Harrods, it is most probably printed by your own headed notepaper from Harrod's it is most probably printed by Dixon's of Newport. If you are less grand and merely go to a john Lewis Partnership shop, or one of the great Clore empire stores like Selfridges, or to W H Smith, the same is likely to be true. Indeed, if you have your own headed note-paper at all, there are 6,000 chances out of all the ether possibilities, that Dixon's print it, for they are now considered the major supplier of personal stationery in the country, fulfilling annually 100,000 orders in this field alone. The printing of gift wrapping paper has become another of their specialities.

During the years of development, the publishing side of the business pushed out the original business of general printing. But this has recently been re-established, and the company is a successful printer of hotel brochures, holiday guides, technical guides and calendars; in fact the reputation for quality colour reproduction has enhanced their value in these areas.

But, I suppose, most of us think of Dixon's as 'the greeting card' firm. Mr P J Harris, the present managing director, told me that they have 700 different designs for everyday greeting cards, and 400 for seasonal cards such as Christmas, Mother's Day and Easter including the cards needed by many charitable organisations. Designs which can either be originals or in the form of positives — are bought from all over the world, although, on occasions, the three resident Dixon artists working in their studio, produce age cards, giftwrap and so on, as and when required. One of their great successes was a recent series of age cards for children aged one to six, adapting Walt Disney characters from film marketed by the Walt Disney empire. There are two full-time and two part-time photographers at Forest Road, three of them working entirely on views for 'specials' or view cards, and one in his own studio setting up and photographing flower studies for Spring, Mother's Day and St Valentine's Day. One interesting connection is that the company publish 'specials' for Ocean Trading, the shipping company of which St John Nicholson, deputy Lieutenant of the Island, was, until recently, the chairman.

The company produces 4,100 different view cards which include general scenic views, ships, wild and domestic animals, flowers and 'vintage' cards.

Mr Dixon died in 1958, and, five years later, Mrs Dixon sold her interest. The company was taken over by J Samuel White as part of their diversification when they switched over from shipbuilding to air-conditioning and refrigeration. Dixon's became a member of a large multinational group when J Samuel White were taken over by International Carrier Corporation of Syracuse, N Y. However, in October of last year, the Dickinson Robinson paper group bought Dixon's from J Samuel White, so the company is now part of a group specialising in stationery products and has a foothold in the European Community through its holdings in Papeteries de la Gouronne of France.