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The Douce Collection

Published June 18, 2024 Updated July 03, 2024

The Douce Collection of playing cards in the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

United Kingdom Bodleian Library Collecting Add to Collection

It is with great pleasure that I can announce that the Douce collection of playing cards, bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in 1834 (see below), has recently been fully digitised / scanned and is now available on the Bodleian Libraries’ online platform Digital Bodleian.

This achievement is in no small part due to the work of Julie Anne Lambert who, before retiring in May 2024 from her position as Head of the Bodleian John Johnson Collection, was determined to oversee the completion of this work before leaving.

A total of 65 complete or partial packs are now accessible, accompanied by brief descriptions. Bibliographic records created pre-scanning and which may contain slightly more information, are now also available in the online catalogue of the John Johnson Collection (by searching for “Douce” in the “shelfmark” index).

Over the years there has been some promotion of the Douce playing cards in the public domain. Roger Tilley included several images in his book A history of playing cards (New York, Potter, 1973), while Paul Bostock has described several individual cards on his Plainbacks website. More recently, Jeffrey Ravel, Professor of History at MIT and editor of French Playing Cards, 1650-1850 has helped with the identification of some of the Douce French items. Additionally, an index of the cards was mounted online in 2024 by Julie Anne Lambert.

Joby Topper, in his Master’s paper in Library Science of April, 2002, titled Francis Douce and His Collection: An Antiquarian in Great Britain, 1757-1834, wrote:

“Douce collected tarot and other playing cards also because he perceived their importance in the history of illustration and printing. … His collection of cards was not large, but it was distinctive enough to provide rare illustrations for two of his friends’ publications on the subject: Joseph Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801) and Samuel Weller Singer’s Researches into the History of Playing Cards (1816)”.

In 1984 an exhibition to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Douce bequest was organised by the Bodleian Library in which 3 card packs were displayed. And I myself, while working in the Bodleian Library, organised two later exhibitions specifically of the Douce playing cards: the first, for members of the International Playing Card Society who visited Oxford during their 1995 London Convention; and again in 2006 for a visit of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards and the English Playing Card Society. So, having started work on the identification and description of the packs some 30 years ago for these two events, I am pleased to have finally completed the task of cataloguing the collection online, as a volunteer, in 2024.

However, while the work has been largely completed, there are several entries on Digital Bodleian (nos. 57-62 in particular) which have been difficult to identify (at least for me, due in part to the small number of cards available, and also to my own insufficient knowledge and/or lack of linguistic expertise to conduct the necessary research). I would certainly be happy to receive comments, corrections or further identification of any of the entries.

We are planning to exhibit the Douce playing cards again during the annual Convention of the International Playing Card Society, scheduled to take place in Oxford, September 2025.

So who was Francis Douce (1757 - 1834)?

There is an excellent article in Wikipedia which details not only his biography, but also the history and composition of this important collection bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in 1834. Playing cards were an exceptionally small part of the bequest which [extracted from Wikipedia] “consisted of over 19,000 volumes of printed books (including 479 incunabula), 420 medieval or 16th century manuscripts, 27,000 prints, 1,500 drawings, and a hoard of medals and coins (which were relocated to the Ashmolean Museum, also in Oxford)”.

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By Peter Burnett

Member since July 27, 2022

I graduated in Russian and East European Studies from Birmingham University in 1969. It was as an undergraduate in Moscow in 1968 that I stumbled upon my first 3 packs of “unusual” playing cards which fired my curiosity and thence my life-long interest. I began researching and collecting cards in the early 1970s, since when I’ve acquired over 3,330 packs of non-standard cards, mainly from North America, UK and Western Europe, and of course from Russia and the former communist countries.

Russian Playing Cards

Following my retirement from the Bodleian Library in Dec. 2007 I took up a new role as Head of Library Development at the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) to support library development in low-income countries. This work necessitated regular training visits to many sub-Saharan African countries and also further afield, to Vietnam, Nepal and Bangladesh – all of which provided rich opportunities to further expand my playing card collection.

Since 2019 I’ve been working part-time in the Bodleian Library where I’ve been cataloguing the bequest of the late Donald Welsh, founder of the English Playing Card Society.


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