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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.

Hand-Painted Transformation, c.1800-20

An early 19th century set of hand-painted transformation playing cards depicting contemporary scenes from Georgian society

The cards are hand-painted and coloured, some on standard printed cards, artfully incorporating the suit symbols into the images depicting contemporary scenes in late Georgian society. We see folks snoozing by the fireside, smoking pipes, enjoying a musical ensemble, playing card games and a variety of other everyday scenes. In short, a candid documentary glimpse of bourgeois domestic life and manners without pomposity. There is a fascinating range of facial expressions and other details to be enjoyed in these very early cards.

Some of the drawings are executed in landscape format (above) and the rest are portrait (below). Only numeral cards are present and one of them (four of hearts) has the inscription “MES 1819”. The ace of diamonds is from the same artist.

An early 19th century set of hand-painted transformation playing cards

Some of the images are copied from English printed packs but most are original, which supports the theory that drawing transformations on playing cards was originally a Georgian parlour game. Several images also appear to have inspired later transformation packs.

An early 19th century set of hand-painted transformation playing cards An early 19th century set of hand-painted transformation playing cards

Above: 34 assorted early 19th century hand-painted transformation playing cards, formerly in the Sylvia Mann collection. The cards come from more than one pack and are amongst the earliest hand-painted transformation cards known. The backs are all plain; various measurements. Images courtesy Barney Townshend.

REFERENCES

Mann, Sylvia: All Cards on the Table, Jonas Verlag/Deutsches Spielkarten-Museum, Leinfelden-Echterdingen, 1990

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By Barney Townshend

Member since October 06, 2015

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Retired Airline Pilot, interested in: Transformation Playing Cards, Karl Gerich and Elaine Lewis. Secretary of the EPCS. Treasurer of the IPCS.

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