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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.

Cartes Comiques du Colonel Atthalin

“Jeu de cartes comiques” transformation cards designed by Louis Atthalin (1784-1856) and published in 1817.

Louis Marie Baptiste Atthalin’s marvellous set of transformation cards, known in France as “cartes comiques”, was first published in c.1817. The court cards are titled and depict persons from classical literature and history in a scene relating to their life, whereas the numeral cards are untitled and portray a variety of contemporary scenes or imaginary cartoons in extraordinary detail (bearing in mind the constrained size of a playing card) and which transform the humble playing card into fine art.

The scenes on the numeral cards include: soldiers, musical gatherings, farm workers, street performers, nursery scene, sailors' sleeping berth, dancers, boxers, doctor's patients, a caged bear, pipe-smoking arabs, a sedan chair, an alchemist and various allegorical scenes.

Besides being an accomplished artist, watercolourist and lithographer, Baron Louis Atthalin was a French Army officer who received numerous awards and distinctions during his military career, reaching the rank of Lieutenant General. In addition, Atthalin was a Knight in the Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis, a Grand Cross in the Royal and Military Order of Saint Ferdinand, and awarded the Order of Glory. In 1848 he retired to Alsace and devoted the rest of his life to watercolour painting.

The cards shown here are from a reproduction of an original deck in the National Playing Card Museun, Turnhout (Belgium) published in 1996. Original cards can also be viewed on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France website

the Valet of clubs, named as ‘Jacquemin Gringoneur’, the artist who painted three packs of cards for King Charles VI of France

Above: the Valet of clubs is named as ‘Jacquemin Gringoneur’, the artist who painted three packs of cards for King Charles VI of France. The card is actually a self-portrait of the artist whose name ‘Louis Atthalin’ appears on the jack of clubs on the easel. Original cards can be viewed on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France website

The Court Cards

The court cards, as is often the case with standard French cards, are titled and represent persons from classical literature and history. But in Louis Atthalin's version they appear in a scene relating to their life history.

Above: cards from a reproduction of an original deck in the National Playing Card Museum, Turnhout (Belgium) published in 1996. All images courtesy Rex Pitts.

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By Rex Pitts (1940-2021)

Member since January 30, 2009

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Rex's main interest was in card games, because, he said, they were cheap and easy to get hold of in his early days of collecting. He is well known for his extensive knowledge of Pepys games and his book is on the bookshelves of many.

His other interest was non-standard playing cards. He also had collections of sheet music, music CDs, models of London buses, London Transport timetables and maps and other objects that intrigued him.

Rex had a chequered career at school. He was expelled twice, on one occasion for smoking! Despite this he trained as a radio engineer and worked for the BBC in the World Service.

Later he moved into sales and worked for a firm that made all kinds of packaging, a job he enjoyed until his retirement. He became an expert on boxes and would always investigate those that held his cards. He could always recognize a box made for Pepys, which were the same as those of Alf Cooke’s Universal Playing Card Company, who printed the card games. This interest changed into an ability to make and mend boxes, which he did with great dexterity. He loved this kind of handicraft work.

His dexterity of hand and eye soon led to his making card games of his own design. He spent hours and hours carefully cutting them out and colouring them by hand.

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