Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: Part of an Uncut Sheet of Playing Cards, 1490-1500

An Uncut Sheet of Playing Cards, 1490-1500
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Here’s a very rare item. We see a large sheet printed sheet of uncut playing cards dating to the late Fifteenth Century. The sheet includes three images (one partial) of the Knave (Jack) of Diamonds and three images (also, one partial) of the Knaves of Hearts.

Due to the exorbitant cost of printing in the Fifteenth Century (an issue which persists to this day), it was more cost-effective for playing-card makers to print several cards in black and white on one sheet of paper, color them through a stencil and then cut the sheet into the individual cards, than it would have been to print and color cards individually. Isn’t it interesting how, after five hundred years, the design of playing cards is essentially unchanged?

The knaves depicted wear fashionable, aristocratic, motley costume, in red, yellow and green. The Knave of Hearts is particularly smart in leggings and a codpiece, a short doublet with long, square-ended false sleeves over close-fitting sleeves and a hat with a feather. The Knave of Diamonds wears a longer doublet with long, square-ended sleeves and a hat with a feather. The Knave of Hearts holds a dog on a leash and carries a staff while the Knave of Diamonds carries a weapon with a banner.

The cards, printed in Lyon, France, are signed by Gilles Savouré, Gilles (possibly the woodcutter). Other marks include, “G: Cartier/G. S. C /H.H./P.30.” These were purchased with funds from the bequest of Captain H.B. Murray (1843-1910), from a sale of the collection of Henry Ralph Mowbray Howard at Sotheby's on the 25th of February 1920. The catalog from the sale states:

“German and Other Woodcuts of the XVTH Century

All, with the exception of the first, are coloured in the manner usually employed in the embellishment of the separately issued relief-cuts on wood or metal of this early period. In nearly every case the impressions now offered for sale are believed to be the only ones known and as such they are recorded in Schreiber's 'Manuel de l'Amateur de la Gravure sur Bois et sur Metal au XVe Siecle'. The sizes given include the border, when such exists, although in many instances such border is a line of colour added by hand.'

The sheet had been preserved in a 16th century binding to Le Trésor de l'Ame, published in Geneva: L. Cruse, 1494.”

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