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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

70: Woodblock and stencil : the spade courts

This is a presentation in a more straightforward fashion of the work done by Paul Bostock and me in our book of the same name.

I want to present a simplified version of the classification system of woodblock cards that Paul Bostock and I worked out a few years ago. Although the minute details may be of relevance in some cases, I have tried to reduce the characteristics of both the blocks and the stencils to give a reliable way of attributing court cards to a particular maker. It has to be borne in mind that many actual examples of packs are mixed as part of the recycling of secondhand cards (legally or otherwise) and sorting them into the makers who made the constituent cards is something that this classification is an attempt to help with. There are even examples of 51 cards by one maker and the AS by another.

The first and easiest analysis is into eye type. There are three, as follows:

Type I: the eye-balls are filled in from the corner to a straight line

Type II: the eye-balls are round in the centre of the eye or at the edge in the profile courts

These were the first types to develop after the end of the Blanchard era (roughly 1780 onwards); I exemplify below a pack of this earlier type.

Blanchard, c.1760

Types I & II were the main designs used from c.1780-1820. Towards the end of this period card-makers were beginning to modernize their courts and many of the makers had in-house designs to replace the older ones, which were shared across several makers. Two further versions of the wood-block courts appeared around 1820. One was shared by a number of makers: Type III.

Type III: round eye-balls, but simplified lines for facial features, e.g. single-line moustaches

The fourth and final type is really an in-house design belonging to Creswick, so I have designated it as CR1.

Creswick CR1: all eyes in profile with round eye-balls

The odd thing about Creswick packs is that he doesn't seem to have redrawn any red jacks: they are either of Type II or Type III.

CR1 with Type II red jacks (probably after taking over Stone's blocks/stock in 1825)

CR1 with Type III red jacks

Although I have attributed this design to Creswick, I have recently acquired an interesting pack with CR1 courts with different colouring, Hall Type II red jacks and a Hall & Bancks Old Frizzle, which I find hard to explain (see page 53).

King of Spades

As a first exemplification of the analysis of the outline block and the colour distribution, I'll take the KS.

Top row: KS1(I)/KS1(II)/KS2/KS3

Bottom row: KS1b/KS2b/KS1a/KS1c

The characteristics I have used to arrive at these designations are as follows:

KS1 has alternating thick and thin stripes on his upper leg; note that this KS may appear with either Type I or Type II eyes. He also has crenellations on both his sleeves. KS1a has thin stripes only on his upper leg, only with Type I eyes in Hunt and Fuller packs, as far as I can tell; KS1b has dots on his sleeve on the right; KS1c has thin stripes and lines on his sleeve on the right; only in an odd pack by Fuller, as far as I know.

KS2 has cheek shading rather than a moustache; he is only found with Type II eyes; KS2a has the twig-like design found in KS3; KS2b has dots on his sleeve on the right.

KS3 has a wavy twig-like design on his sleeve on the right (= his left) (see KS2a for the same design with Type II eyes).

These designations cover 40 of my wood-block packs; there are some further variations, but they don't add anything to the basic distinctions. For example, Stone, Hall and Creswick all produced packs with elongated faces and Type II eyes, but the KS can still be aligned with one of the six types given above. In the Hall pack below the faces are all elongated, but the KS fits the profile of KS2 with Type II eyes and cheek shading.

Queen of Spades

QS1(I) (x2)/QS1(II)/QS1a(II)

Main characteristics:

QS1 has yellow/red/yellow (Y/R/Y) on her sleeve on the right and her arm is lower than her shoulder; with Type I eyes her belt is horizontal, her head-dress on the left is all black and her sleeve is blue up to her flower and either black or white above her hand. With Type II eyes her belt is sloping, her head-dress is black and red and her sleeve is all blue; in variant QS1a her bodice is blue on the left. Except for QS1a, which always has Type II eyes, QS1 can have either eye type.

QS2(I)/QS2(II)/QS2a(II)

Main characteristics:

QS2 has R/blue (B)/Y on her sleeve on the right, her shoulder is below or just below her shoulder, and her upper sleeve is blue and red; with Type I eyes her belt is horizontal and her head-dress on the left is black and white, with Type II it is sloping, she has a lace collar by her cheek on the right by her head-dress and her head-dress on the left is black and red; QS2a holds a tulip and her upper sleeve is in line with her shoulder or just below it, a Hall variant.

QS3/QS4

Main characteristics:

QS3 has a sloping belt and black (Bk)/R/Y on her sleeve; she has blue and black on her upper sleeve, or it is all blue; her head-dress is black on the left. Type I eyes, and as far as I can tell, only used by Hardy.

QS4 has a long face (see the examples by Hall above), B/R/Y on her sleeve and her upper sleeve is blue and yellow; her head-dress is black and red on the left. Used by Stone and Creswick. Note that the long-faced QS in the court set with elongated faces above is QS2.

Jack of Spades

Top row: JS1/JS1a/JS2/JS2a

Bottom row: JS2b/JS2c/JS3/JS3a

JS1 has Type I eyes, a moustache and an odd attribute with no base, his sleeve on the right is level with his shoulder, his sleeve on the left is all blue. His tunic is coloured Y/R/Bk/R/Y/R. Example by Hunt. JS1a has Y/R/Y/Bk/Y/R on his tunic. Example by Stopforth.

JS2 has Type II eyes, a moustache and a pike with a base, his sleeve edge is above the level of his shoulder and it is flat at the bottom, his sleeve at the left is blue and red. The top of his sleeve has small circles. His tunic s coloured Y/Bk/Y/R/Y/Bk. JS2a is the same except that he has cheek shading and no circles on his sleeve. Both examples from Hall; the flat bottomed sleeve is replaced by a curved one in later examples. JS2b (by Stone) has an elongated face and no base to his pike. He has the tunic colouring of JS1a: Y/R/Y/Bk/Y/R. His leg at the left is coloured R/Y rather than the usual Y/R, which appears in other examples by Stone. JS2c is a one-off in a piquet-sized pack by Hall & Bancks. He is like JS2a but with the tunic colouring of JS1a and no moustache or shading.

JS3 is a mixture of the two types we've seen so far. He has Type I eyes and is like JS1a except that he has blue and red on his sleeve at the left and a base to his attribute. This example from T. Wheeler seems to have had the black on his tunic missed off in the stencilling process. JS3a is an odd example from Fuller (from the same pack as KS6) with the staff of his attribute completely missing and blue instead of black on his tunic (see the Hunt example of JS1 above). There are other Fuller packs with the usual black on the tunic and his sleeve in line with his shoulder (JS3b, not illustrated).

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By Ken Lodge

Member since May 14, 2012

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​I'm Ken Lodge and have been collecting playing cards since I was about eighteen months old (1945). I am also a trained academic, so I can observe and analyze reasonably well. I've applied these analytical techniques over a long period of time to the study of playing cards and have managed to assemble a large amount of information about them, especially those of the standard English pattern. Read more...

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