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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.

Knavery of the Rump, 1679

The Knavery of the Rump playing cards, first published in 1679, are a satirical portrayal of Oliver Cromwell's Government. The illustrations on the cards provide a rare visual impression of the times.

The Knavery of the Rump engraved playing cards, first published in 1679, are a satirical portrayal of Oliver Cromwell's Government during the period of the Rump Parliament 1648-53. The illustrations on the cards provide a rare visual impression of the times. We see not only the military warring factions, but the humbler souls of town and countryside in traditional dress. The title card (second row) is inscribed “The Knavery of the Rump, Lively represented in a Pack of Cards. To be sold by R.T. (Randal Taylor) near Stationers Hall and at the Black Bull in Cornhill.” The backs are plain.

This pack was engraved from designs by the artist Francis Barlow, and a copy of the pack was owned by Lord Nelson. A large number of such educational packs were published during the 17th-18th centuries. A facsimile edition was published by the Aungervyle Society, printed by E. & G. Goldsmid, Edinburgh in 1886 with coloured backs and titled “A Pack of Cavalier Playing Cards”. A modern facsimile of this very rare pack is part of a range published by Harry Margary.

The Knavery of the Rump playing cards are a satirical portrayal of Cromwell's Government during the period 1648-53

Above: cards from the facsimile edition courtesy Giles de Margary. The illustrations on the cards, with their strongly protagonist captions, provide, apart from their familiar sentiments of disapproval, a rare visual impression of the times. The satirical element involves presenting the personalities in various unfamiliar occupations and costumes, and we see not only the military warring factions, but the humbler souls of town and countryside in traditional dress, the waggoners, shepherds, corset-makers, carpenters and so on. The pack is, in fact, a valuable witness to a variety of aspects of mid 17th-century society. Packs can be ordered directly from www.harrymargary.com

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

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