The World of Playing Cards Logo
Published May 19, 2024 Updated May 23, 2024

Portrait Playing Cards

Portrait playing cards, featuring realistic drawings of people on the court cards instead of traditional stylized figures, originated in the 18th century and continue to gain popularity.

Dondorf Kimberley & Sons Reynolds Rowley & Co. Alfred Crowquill Egor Klyuchnyk Lotrék Art & Design Add to Collection

Above: Monarchs of Europe by Rowley and Co, c. 1775. Note also the new suit signs.

Portrait playing-cards are one of my favourite types, but before I get going, this is not (yet) a standard term, so I need to explain what they are. The easiest way to get what I am describing is to look ahead at the illustrations. Portrait cards are a variant of standard playing-card patterns in which the traditional and highly stylized Jacks, Queens and Kings have been replaced with more realistic drawings of people – real or imaginary…

The first English example was made by Rowley and Co. and bears a taxed A♠ valid from 1765-1776. These cards are printed with copper plate, not the cruder wooden blocks used for the standard packs, and the faces are from European royal families. Their intention was to restore clarity to the Kings and Queens depicted - and thereby to make their fortunes! These cards probably sold quite well at the time, as quite a few survive, but they were not popular with card-players, who want their cards to be immediately familiar. They did not last long.

A fine English example is the Kimberley ‘Patriotic’ card design from 1893-1897. Unlike the Rowley cards, these have conventional suits and could easily have been used to play card games. Five Editions were made, so these must have been popular. The court cards show famous people from different countries (England, USA, Germany and France). In the following image, the Q depicts Queen Victoria, the K shows George Washington.

The next set is by Reynolds & Co of London and it was made around 1850. At a glance it is almost standard, but it features drawings by the artist and caricaturist Alfred Crowquill. The faces are humorous and gently mock the appearance of conventional playing-cards. The pips on all the numeral cards are also filled in with drawings of faces.

The brilliant Tiffany Harlequin transformation pack of 1879 takes this idea further, but it is more natural to call it a transformation rather than a portrait type.

The ‘Hundertjahrkarte’ by B Dondorf of Frankfurt was made to celebrate the Manufacturer’s 100th year in operation - 1933. This deck is considered by many people as a very good candidate for “best ever”. The figures here are imaginary and perhaps figures of folk legend. It is said that sixteen lithographic stones were used – each one creating a different color. Legend has it that making these cards reduced the Company to bankruptcy; the truth is that the 1930s were hard times and Dondorf was already being taken over.

Portrait packs are enjoying something of a revival in the 21st century. The Dondorf Centenary Pack just mentioned is currently being restored by Mike Ratledge and Lotrek Oath. Every aspect of the original will be faithfully reproduced, exploiting the best available modern inks. Judging by their previous productions, this should be a fabulous recreation, one that will be online by the time this CTD is mailed out.

Half-moon playing cards’ “Icons (Imperial Edition)”, also designed by Lotrek, is a great contemporary example of a portrait pack. Lotrek has included some of the team – it is great to see the 52+J member and United Cardists’ leader Mike Ratledge as a convincingly ancient King of Spades.

Above: United Cardists Icons Imperial 2015

The modern cards show at least as much diversity as the older ones. Two packs will show what I mean: the first is “Origins” (2015) by Rick Davidson, an artist based in New Zealand. Rick researched the early French cards, the Ancestors of the English and American standards, and chose a set by Maréchal of Rouen as a reference. The court cards have the correct clothing and faces that remind us of those early designs. The ‘Medieval’ set (2016) was designed by Egor Klyuchnyk of the Ukraine. These have full-length figures on the courts, and it is a pleasure to see this feature in new cards.

Above: Origins 2015 and Medieval 2016.

By now I hope you have been thoroughly convinced that this is an appealing category of playing cards, that this type has been popular for more than two centuries and it is now enjoying a renaissance. It seems unfortunate, therefore, that this type of card does not have an official name.

Experts on classification might say that they are ‘pictorial’ or ‘artistic’. Otherwise terms like ‘redrawn’ or just plain ‘custom’ can be used. None of these terms makes it clear that they are just as useful as standards for playing real games, they are usually very attractive and interesting designs and they are very popular with the public and with collectors. Surely they deserve a name of their own?

In The Playing Card (Vol 45 Spring 2017), I wrote a short piece suggesting the name of ‘Portrait Cards’. While this is a little tame, perhaps, it is reasonably clear and describes the main addition to the court cards. (With a wry sense of humor I actually like ‘non-standard Standards’, but I don’t see that catching on.

If anyone has a better idea, and whether you agree or disagree, I would be delighted to hear from you – please send an email.


References

  • Bostock, Paul; Clear the Decks, 52 Plus Joker, Vol. 31, No. 2 (June 2017)
avatar
8 Articles

By Paul Bostock

Member since May 07, 2024

Paul has been a collector of playing cards since his early teenage years, the mid 1970s. In the last 20 years or so he has specialised in standard English cards and their story. His collection, including many other English Standards, are featured on his website plainbacks.com. Paul is currently editor of Clear the Decks, the Journal of 52 Plus Joker, the American club for playing card collectors, and is a member of the IPCS Council, an EPCS member and a Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing cards, a City of London livery company.


Related Articles

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Hearts

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Hearts

A limited edition art print of the Jack of Hearts 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

A limited edition art print of the 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil King of Diamonds

Woodblock and Stencil King of Diamonds

A limited edition art print of the King of Diamonds 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

A limited edition art print of the Jack of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.

Portrait Playing Cards

Portrait Playing Cards

Portrait playing cards, featuring realistic drawings of people on the court cards instead of traditi...

1985 Paco Lobo

Paco Lobo

Highly original and striking designs by Paco Lobo for the fashion house of the same name.

1962 Jeu Boléro

Jeu Boléro

Sweeping, semi-abstract designs by J.L. Jolin in red and black only.

1968 Knoll International

Knoll International

Geometric designs by the French artist Jean Garçon for Knoll International, the furniture company.

1973 Marcello Morandini

Marcello Morandini

Modern designs by Italian artist Marcello Morandini using the simplest of forms and colours.

1997 Claude Weisbuch

Claude Weisbuch

Free reinterpretation of the traditional Paris pattern courts by the artist Claude Weisbuch.

2010 El Niño de las Pinturas

El Niño de las Pinturas

Forty-nine distinctive works by Spanish graffiti artist Raúl Ruiz.

2019 Pendleton playing cards

Pendleton playing cards

Pendleton playing cards inspired by indigenous American artwork, USA, 2019.

1930 Jägerkarte Nr.465

Jägerkarte Nr.465

Dondorf Jägerkarte Nr. 465 playing cards dedicated to the theme of hunting, c.1930.

1867 Englische Karten nr.190

Englische Karten nr.190

Dondorf Nr.190“Englische Karten”, 1867-1895.

2021 Old School Playing cards from Moon

Old School Playing cards from Moon

Designed and published by Leo Scherfig

2005 Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights (1001 Nights Tarot)

Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights (1001 Nights Tarot)

This tarot deck captures the idealised Eastern world's magic from the eighteenth and nineteenth cent...

1945 ORIENT The Queen of Cards

ORIENT The Queen of Cards

A unique Art creation of Subho Tagore

2015 Newtropolis and the Fantastic Fur

Newtropolis and the Fantastic Fur

Newtropolis and the Fantastic Fur: Heroes vs. Villains playing cards illustrated by Peter Wood, 2015...

1870 Vues et Caractères Suisses No.228

Vues et Caractères Suisses No.228

A Swiss souvenir pack by Dondorf

1986 Baraja Española de Pintores Murcianos

Baraja Española de Pintores Murcianos

A Spanish-suited pack as conceived by 48 different artists from the region of Murcia.

2002 Le Jeu d’Issy

Le Jeu d’Issy

Bold designs by Jacques Auriac representing people and enterprises for which the town of Issy-les-Mo...

1984 Bilder zum Tarot

Bilder zum Tarot

Detailed pen and ink drawings of the major arcana by the German artist Helmut Wonschick.

2000 Le Jeu de la Chance

Le Jeu de la Chance

Original designs by French artist Jean Vérame, with clubs replaced by four-leaf clovers to bring goo...

1991 Secretos de Oriente

Secretos de Oriente

Secrets of the Far East playing cards featuring the designs of Violeta Monreal , Spain, c. 1991.

1990 Ases de la pintura / Masters of painting

Ases de la pintura / Masters of painting

Ases de la pintura / Masters of painting playing cards made by Naipes Comas, Spain, c.1990.

1993 Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Modern Art playing cards designed by Takenobu Igarashi.

1988 Festa Major de Vilafranca 1988

Festa Major de Vilafranca 1988

Colourful figures associated with the annual festival held in Vilafranca, Catalonia.

1994 Crystal Time

Crystal Time

Colourful and attractive designs by Violeta Monreal, inspired by stained glass through the ages.

1942 Lidia Schöffer art-deco playing cards

Lidia Schöffer art-deco playing cards

A prize winning design from The Netherlands

1741 Great Mogul Playing Cards

Great Mogul Playing Cards

The origins of the 'Great Mogul' brand playing cards.

Chinese Opera Masks Playing Cards   脸谱

Chinese Opera Masks Playing Cards 脸谱

Three different packs of cards featuring traditional Chinese face painting and Chinese opera masks.

1930 Oude Kunst (Old Art) playing cards with Wüst courts

Oude Kunst (Old Art) playing cards with Wüst courts

made for export to the Netherlands.

Bezique Markers, 1860-1960

Bezique Markers, 1860-1960

Bezique is a two-player melding and trick-taking game. Dr. Pole introduced Bezique to England in 186...

2019 Cyberpunk Playing Cards by Elephant

Cyberpunk Playing Cards by Elephant

Cyberpunk playing cards, combining themes of lowlife and high tech. Created by Ben Jones, produced b...

1930 Rococo Whist-Bridge Nr.53

Rococo Whist-Bridge Nr.53

printed by Flemming-Wiskott A.G. of Glogau

2004 Playing cards in Russian life

Playing cards in Russian life

Playing cards in Russian life - Karty v zhizni Rossii - published by Aleksandr Lutkovskii in 2004.

1920 Dondorf Patience playing cards No.26

Dondorf Patience playing cards No.26

Patience playing cards with children in historical costumes

1930 Dondorf related ephemera

Dondorf related ephemera

A few items used for advertising or displaying Dondorf playing card products.

2000 San Playing Cards

San Playing Cards

Rock paintings and engravings of the San people, better known as the “Bushmen”.

1850 Fortune-Telling Cards

Fortune-Telling Cards

Comic Fortune-Telling Cards published by Reynolds & Sons, c.1850.

1850 Comic Question & Answer cards

Comic Question & Answer cards

Comic Question & Answer cards by Josh. Reynolds & Sons, circa 1850.

1935 Müller: Richelieu

Müller: Richelieu

This deck is named after Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642),...

1906 Schweizer Trachten

Schweizer Trachten

Schweizer Trachten No.174 (Costumes Suisses) by Dondorf.