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Published July 03, 1996 Updated May 12, 2022

Art in Playing Cards

…although their measurements are small, they are not thereby limited in their imaginative range, or the skill and care of their execution. At no time was smallness more prized that at the end of the Middle Ages, especially during the first half of the fifteenth century in northern Europe…


The Playing-Card as a Vehicle for Aesthetic Expression

The earliest playing cards were hand-painted, often gilded, and designed to be beautiful objects. Packs of cards were mentioned in wills and inventories, and given as wedding presents, so would have been considered valuable and precious. Not only were cards gilded and painted in many colours, and not merely decorated with ornamental patterns, but often the designs themselves showed great artistic skill, harmony of colour and grace of forms.

For over six centuries - apart from its functionality as a number game - the playing card has been chosen as a medium for artistry, aesthetic endeavour and ornamental design, ranging from hand-painted and engraved cards for medieval patrons, to the chromo-lithographic delights and transformation cards of the nineteenth century, and the designer and art packs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Click the button to follow the trail…

The Princely Hunting Pack of Ambras, c.1440

The Book of Trades by Jost Ammon

Far Left: The Princely Hunting Pack of Ambras, hand-painted, attributed to the workshop of Konrad Witz, c.1440

Left: The Book of Trades by Jost Ammon, woodcuts, mid-XVI century

Right: Fantasy playing cards made for Cigarrillos El Perú, Roldan y Cia, Lima (Peru), chromo-lithography, c.1890

Fantasy Chromolithography pack, c.1890


Based on a talk given to the International Playing-Card Society, London, on 10th August 2002.


By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.

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