Cranleigh Arts Centre
West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
of Playing Cards
Report of the
lecture given by Yasha Beresiner
on April 25th 2012
the end of Wednesday's talk several members commented that they had never
imagined that a lecture with this title would turn out to be quite so
fascinating or quite so much fun.
pointed out very early on that playing cards are familiar to every one of us and
so at least we were starting off on known territory, unlike the beginning of
some other lectures where we may not have had the first clue about a particular
building or artist or movement. However, we were soon led outside our comfort
zone as we learned how playing cards had developed through the ages, fulfilling
countless different and often surprising roles.
Before looking at their beginnings, a couple of interesting facts about
playing cards ....... Firstly, the familiar English suits of hearts, diamonds,
clubs and spades were once upon a time counterbalanced in Spain by batons,
swords, cups and coins and in Germany by bells, hearts, leaves and acorns.
Secondly, packs vary enormously in value. The exquisitely illustrated Flemish
Hunting Deck fetched £90,000 when it was last sold at auction, in stark
contrast to a standard modern-day pack made in China which can be bought at
wholesale rates for just 7p.
exact origin of playing cards is unknown but the earliest reference to them was
in Italy in 1377. However, it was not a reference that augured well for their
future as they were in fact banned for reputedly being a contributory factor to
drunkenness in Florence.
In 1792 after the Revolution the sight of crowned heads on their playing
cards was offensive to the French, and so the crowns were simply cut off and the
kings turned into sages, the queens into virtues and the jacks became heroes.
However, ever keen to adapt to the changing political situation, the government
expediently reversed the decision in 1813!
1820 the court cards were standing but then became mirrored, and forty years
later indices were added by the Americans (who also introduced jokers), so now
the cards were very much easier to hold, read and sort in the hand.
At different periods of time the backs of the cards were illustrated with
current affairs stories such as the South Sea Bubble and the Popish Plots, with
county maps which for the first time showed roads, with satirical cartoons, with
musical scores such as "The Beggar's Opera", with proverbs or with the
coats of arms of the nobility. It's quite an entertaining thought that playing
cards could be considered very early forerunners of the BBC News Channel, the
TomTom or "Private Eye"! Indeed, the tradition of political cartoons
continues right up to modern times with packs of cards being issued by the
Americans after World War Two showing Hitler and Mussolini as the jokers, or
with the British producing a Playing Politics or Cabinet Shuffle pack in 1983
when, very conveniently, there were four political parties contesting the
General Election (Conservative, Labour, Liberal and SDP) which could represent
the four traditional suits.
Yasha's deep interest in playing cards had stemmed from a boyhood collection of
coins and banknotes when he discovered that during the French Revolution there
had been a shortage of notes and so the blank backs of playing cards were called
into service. If that had been the starting point of his lifelong fascination,
then the high point must surely have been his installation as Master of the
Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards.
There were plenty of questions at the end but none of us asked Yasha if, as
well as being a collector of cards, he was also a player!
Yasha Beresiner with his wonderful playing card tie.