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59: Owen Jones (1809-74) and De La Rue

Back in 2006 Mike Cooper and I published an article in Owen Jones with quite a number of illustrations. There are also further illustrations on page 5 of this blog and in my most recent book: The British playing card industry 1600-2000. There is no need to repeat all that information here, but it might be useful to consider in more detail which back designs are definitely by Jones. It is, in fact, quite difficult to say for certain, which of the designs used by De La Rue are by him. We need to see them in the context of his major work The grammar of ornament, published first in 1856. This is not the source of the designs he made for De La Rue, but it is the inspiration. The grammar is a collection of actual decorative motifs from all over the world, put together in an attempt to lay the foundations of all ornamentation in the Victorian period. He uses the word grammar to refer to the basic component parts from which decoration can be fashioned and hopes to have captured all there is to capture in actual examples. There are very few actual examples from the grammar to be found on the backs of cards. Strangely, the ones there are are fairly uninspiring. For example, there is an all-over one that is used in cheap packs, e.g. Andrews, which comes from China and is taken from decorative porcelain. So, this is not a design by Jones, but one taken from his source book. Later it was turned through 90º and produced in various colours.

Above: Chinese porcelain decoration from Plate LIX (green in the Grammar)

An example that was drawn by Jones comes from the final section of the Grammar in which he exemplifies leaves and flowers from nature in black and white outline on a buff ground (except for Plate XCVIII, which is in full colour). In this case the subject is a rose branch with hips. Again it was used in relatively cheap packs, as it has an all-over colour background. I have seen a copy of this in a Belgian pack imported into this country by Alfred Davis.

Above: Rose-hips from Plate XCVI, still available in 1880.

A mark of the popularity of Jones's designs, even abroad, can be seen in the pack by Dougherty with odd courts from the 1850s with a back copied closely from a De La Rue one of the same period. The impressions are not from the same plates, but the closeness is remarkable. (Dougherty also copied De La Rue's D3 single-figure courts; see page 42)

Above: D4, 1850-55

Above: Dougherty, copy of Jones design, 1850s

One can assume that these drawings from nature were the basis for his early designs from the 1840s and 1850s, which were similar botanical drawings. Some of them continued in use on cheaper packs into the 1870s.

Above: Trade samples from the 1850s; the small card top left exemplifies the Victoria format, though this design continued in use until the 1880s.

The style of his plant drawings then changed and more detail and three-dimensionality is discernible. These designs seem to belong to the post-Frizzle period.

On the other hand, it isn't clear whether Jones was the only designer employed during the 1840s and 1850s. We can't be sure whether any of the following, which are all from the 1850s, are by him:

Above: 9 designs which cannot definitely be attributed to Owen Jones.

There is a list of the designs produced between 1844 and 1863: it's a hand-written note dated 1868 in the De La Rue archives. Unfortunately, the list gives little detailed information about the designs, using mostly generic descriptions, such as 'Pompeian' and 'floral', but it does give an idea of when the designs were originally made. The dates given in the list aren't necessarily the dates De La Rue used them as back designs. For example, some of the designs dated 1863 were not issued until 1867, which we know from an advertisement in The Stationer & Fancy Trades Register where nos. 157, 163, 169 and 171 are illustrated. The list is as below:

If we have the reference number in an actual catalogue of samples, we can tell which design is meant, but sample books don't seem to have come in until the 1860s. It is also clear that there are later designs by Jones beyond the 173 of the hand-written list. For example, in the 1868-69 catalogue the design named Indian Freize [sic] appears, numbered 182. Also, in The Stationer & Fancy Trades Register of January 1870 further designs appear with numbers in the 200s.

There is a trade list from Silver & Fleming, dated 1880, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, with a long list of De La Rue (and Goodall) cards that they supplied. The designs appear to have been renumbered, though it is more likely that the first four-digit numbers in the list below are those of Silber & Fleming rather than De La Rue's, which are to the right of the oblique.

No. 8698/514 Indian Pink

No. 8706/207 Indian Jonquil

No. 8709/158 Prince of Wales

No. 8715/129 Nasturtium

No. 8721/195 White rose

No. 8723/87 Cotton Plant.

The last of these is dated 1859 in the hand-written list, though it is described simply as "ornamental" and numbered 78, but it gives us an idea of how long some of the designs were in use. These designs are listed by Silber & Fleming alongside designs not by Jones (he died in 1874), such as Dovecot and Priestess & Tripod. The cards on offer are unindexed square cornered, round cornered with the patent Dexter indices, and round cornered and what are referred to as "ordinary pips". Whether this is a reference to normal indices or to unindexed cards is not clear, possibly the latter.

On the other hand, he liked to take non-representational designs from the sources in his book producing quite different results. These are often unnamed in the catalogues, but have clearly been influenced by the examples in the Grammar. For instance, there are Pompeian designs dated 1853 in the list, which may or may not be the same as ones used after 1862; there are four examples below, all of which were still available in 1870.

Above: 180 Unnamed

Above: No. 162 unnamed

Interestingly, there are even examples of mediaeval overall designs on the clothing of the single-figure courts (D3) redesigned some time in the 1840s, such as the clover diaper on the QC from Plate LXVIII (no 49) and the decoration on the bottom of the KC's tunic. De La Rue was the first maker to put such detail on the clothing of his courts.

Some designs are taken from a period which itself had copied earlier designs. Some could be Pompeian, mediaeval or Italian in terms of the Grammar. The following is, in fact, described as Italian:

No. 157 Italian

By searching catalogues, in particular the one held in the Birmingham City Library from 1868-69, and adverts I've been able to identify positively 45 out of 223 designs, which are almost certainly all by Owen Jones but mostly from the period after 1862. I can also hazard a guess at several of the early ones, some of which I've illustrated above. The following carousel contains the definite ones (click left / right arrows to scroll):

Note that many of the designs came in various colour schemes, as in the example below:

So, the list of numbered and/or named designs (some without an illustration) is as follows: 48-51 4 Pompeian; 63 Tartan; 77 Persian; 87 Cotton Plant; 119 Indian Corn; 121 Passion Flower; 129 Nasturtium; 142 Olive Branch; 143-148 6 Chinese; 150 Acorn; 152 Persian Rose; 156 Indian Rose; 157 Italian; 158 Prince of Wales; 160 Indian Feather (in the 1868-69 catalogue the sample card is incorrect, as it's actually the Indian Rose design); 161; 162 (Pompeian); 163 Indian Jewel; 164; 165; 166; 167; 168; 169 Indian Flower; 171 Indian Border; 172; 174; 180 (Pompeian); 181; 182 Indian Frieze; 183 Persian Diamond; 184; 185; 186; 187; 188; 192 Chinese Flowers; 193 Mayflower; 195 White Rose; 196; 200; 202; 204; 205; 206; 207 Indian Jonquil; 211; 213; 214; 219 Fuchsia; 220 Sweet Pea; 223 Princess of Wales. In addition, the following named designs are listed in reviews of De La Rue's cards, the description by Charles Dickens of a trip to the De La Rue factory in 1852, in an advert from 1865 and in an in-house list from 1866, without any illustration: Fuchsia, Cherry Tree, Blue-bell, Forget-me-not, Daisy, Carnation, Ears of Wheat and Barley, Shamrock, Cineraria, Olive, Plum, Pomegranate, Peach, Geranium, Raspberry, Oriental Gold, Willow Pattern. Some of these can be paired with actual examples with some certainty. What we don't know for certain is whether some of the designs kept their names, but underwent stylistic changes. For example, is the Geranium design of c.1875, shown below, the same as the one seen by Charles Dickens in 1852? It seems unlikely, given the change in design (and fashion?) that can be seen in the backs through the decades. Even the simple designs, such as Tartan, have different temporal versions. The ones in the slideshow above from 1868-69 are not the same as the one below from c.1855.

Above: Geranium, c.1875

Above: Tartan, c.1855

The following selection are unnamed and unnumbered, but are from the 1868-69 catalogue. They could have been numbered and named in previous years, but are shown here without a title. The multicoloured ones are for Moguls and Harrys, whereas the single-coloured ones are for Highlanders.

Finally, here's a selection not all of which are from a catalogue or an advert, but which come from Owen Jones's creative ability. A few of the images are duplicates of ones I've already shown, sometimes in different colours.

To give some idea of production levels I give below the figures for the year 1866 from a printed document from the De La Rue archives. The overall figure for all grades of card is 299468 packs, but it's broken down to the level of individual back designs for Moguls and Harrys.

Cotton Plant: 10,660; Shamrock: 2,460; Cineraria: 3,280; Nasturtium: 4,100; Olive: 3,280; Acorn: 4,920; Geranium: 4,100; Indian Rose: 4,510; Raspberry: 3,280; Persian Rose: 4,920; Indian Feather: 5,740; Oriental Gold: 3,690.

Figured, that is non-representational, designs are lumped together as one entry with a total output of 114,390 packs. So, it's hardly surprising that we still find so many examples; don't forget, this is only one year's output. We know that Cotton Plant, for instance, was very popular: it was first designed in 1859 and was still available in 1880. It has the biggest output of any design in that quality of card in 1866.

For an exercise in dating actual packs with Jones back designs, see page 41

It's clear some of his designs were used after his death and his influence continued into the 1890s in the designs of others. This is particularly the case with botanical representations, which were popular up until after 1900. Whether some of these were actually designed by him (though the violets definitely were) is difficult to say; they all date from 1880 onwards, well after his death.

Above: A selection of backs from the 1880s, 1890s and after 1900 (the bottom three).

The variety of his styles can be seen in the selection below, ranging from the 1850s (top left) to the 1890s (bottom right).

One quite extraordinary find is that in c.1910 Goodall used one of the designs from the Grammar, namely a decoration from the walls of the Alhambra from Plate XXXIX, no.11.

Above: Goodall bridge-size pack, c.1910

The design continued in use right into the 1950s, when it was printed in two-tone and was commonly found in cheap canasta sets.

Although Reynolds claimed to have been the first to decorate playing card backs, it was De La Rue who took it to a fine art, thanks to Owen Jones. Once the idea of decorative backs was established, all the other makers followed De La Rue's lead. This occurred mostly from 1862 onwards; I illustrate a few examples from other makers on page 14


Last Updated February 11, 2018 at 03:31pm


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