Chance and fortune: gaming in France

More than merely children’s toys, playing cards have a long and fascinating history. In printmaking, they represent some of the earliest examples of the media as they were first hand-made in Europe in the 15th century (see Printing 1450-1520). They were typically printed from woodcut on a large sheet, with a patterned backing glued to the verso, and would later be cut into individual cards. Additionally, they show the technical development of the art through the application of colour with stencil.

Surprisingly, they also convey a world of information about art and society, and are a record of social exchange. Their designs hold many messages and can often be traced to a specific time and location. Playing card games transcended social classes as they were played by aristocrats and peasants alike. They have the power to evoke strong emotions via the thrall of the game and the consequences of chance and fortune. As material objects, cards record insights about human interaction and moments in history: they could be exchanged, written on and their meanings transformed.

French card players
Sebastien Leclerc the elder, Card players (Des joueurs de cartes), etching, (1708

A set of 32 piquet cards has been added to the Baillieu Library Print Collection. Piquet is a trick-taking game rather like euchre which uses 32 cards instead of the regular 52 deck. The set of cards was acquired to provide students of printmaking studies a practical example of the use and application of colour with stencil, but they are also of interest to students of history and psychology.

Set of 32 piquet playing cards
Set of 32 piquet playing cards, designed after Nicolas Marie Gatteaux, 1813-1816

France has an important role in the development of playing cards and their suits of trèfles (clovers or clubs), carreaux (tiles or diamonds), cœurs (hearts) and piques (pikes or spades) were adopted by many other nations. Originally these suits symbolised positions of the church, later they represented roles at the royal court.

Face cards were often associated with a particular person; the queen of spades for example, has long been viewed as Joan of Arc, and sometimes these court cards were named. In the game piquet, the face cards became known identities from history and literature. The rois (kings) were: David, Charles, Ceasar and Alexander, the dames (queens): Pallas, Judith, Rachel and Argine, and the valets (jacks): Hogier, LaHire, Hector and Lancelot. [1.]

Piquet face cards
Face cards designed after Nicolas Marie Gatteaux, 1813-1816

In the 18th century the French Revolution saw the royal family beheaded, and likewise their portraits were removed and banned. The playing cards produced after the Revolution had to be stripped of allusions to the former monarchy. In 1808 Napoleon also decided to replace the court cards with a new design. He commissioned the painter Jacques-Louis David to design a deck in which the figures displayed neoclassical elegance. However, a similar design by the medallist Nicolas Marie Gatteaux was instead selected, and this corrected version included the names of each figure on the card. [2.]

In 1813 Gatteaux rethought the design and produced another deck, and this time the face cards returned to a more traditional Paris pattern which can be seen in the Baillieu’s deck of cards. Gatteaux’s design had a brief life before it too was replaced by the double-headed face cards, typically seen on playing cards today.

Girl playing with cards
Girl playing with cards, after George Romney, lithograph, 19th century

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)


[1.] Catherine Perry Hargrave, A history of playing cards and a bibliography of cards and gaming, New York Dover Publications 1966, pp.31-57

[2.] Prototype for a set of Imperial playing cards


Facing The Dragon Arum

The Dragon Arum or Dracunculus vulgaris (1801), a striking mezzotint illustration, was added to the collection by Rare Books in 2017 and is currently on prominent display in Dark imaginings: tales of gothic wonder. Also on display is a facsimile edition Robert Thornton’s book, Temple of Flora (1799) where this menacing lily originates.

The Dragon Arum
William Ward after Peter Charles Henderson, The Dragon Arum, (1801), mezzotint

When the botanist Carl Linnaeus developed a system of taxonomy and began to discuss plants in terms of their sexuality, then nature became animated and the academy became enlightened. These ideas are rapturously embodied through Thornton’s book, which lavishly illustrates this new, romantic nature.

The Dragon Arum is a dangerous bloom designed to lure insects into its maw of death. As a mezzotint, it layers the versatility of the medium through the introduction of colour, and by placing the specimen before a heaving backdrop from the natural world.

Honing drawing skills with cultural collections

Drawing workshops run by the University of Melbourne Student Union with Museums and Collections on campus are an important means to hone artistic skills. Students in the workshops visited the Medical History Museum, the Dark imaginings exhibition, the Baillieu Library Print Collection  and the Grainger Museum and drew objects on display, as well as items that had been brought out from storage.

UMSU students drawing
Photo: Alice Mathieu, Arts Programs, UMSU.

Copying works of art through drawing is an age-old tradition which assists students to acquire and understand the techniques exercised by master artists. Grasping perspective and foreshortening challenges created through displays and gallery spaces is another skill which can be learned.

UMSU student drawing
Photo: Alice Mathieu, Arts Programs, UMSU.

The students had the opportunity to draw with pencils and experience another medium, that of silverpoint, a method which grew from Medieval manuscripts and which employs the use of a metal stylus on a prepared ground.

Drawing cultural collections is an opportunity for artists to get out of the studio, and for the objects it is an opportunity to come to life through the student’s creative efforts.

UMSU student drawings
Photo: Alice Mathieu, Arts Programs, UMSU.

Pygmies versing beasts according to Homer and Pliny

According to Homer, there existed a tribe of Pygmies, or diminutive people one-and-a-half feet tall, who were constantly at war with cranes (The Iliad book III). This Greek myth recounts how these Pygmies lived in caves and rode about on rams. Annually the tribe partook in a great war with the cranes, with the objective to steal and eat many crane eggs and chicks, thereby keeping the vicious crane population in check.

Fight between Pygmees and Cranes engraving
Adriaen Collaert after Jan van der Straet, Fight between Pygmees and Cranes, (c.1596), engraving

The Flemish artist Adriaen Collaert (c.1560-1618) illustrates this very event in his engraving, Fight between Pygmees and Cranes (c.1596) where we see the tribe gallop forth on their rams and billy goats, and a deadly skirmish between human and beast ensue. This plate is from the large series, Venationes, ferarum, arium, piscium (Hunts of wild animals, birds and fish). When the series was commissioned, hunting scenes were of great interest, for Jan van der Straet (1523- 1605) had just made drawings of hunting imagery for tapestries to decorate the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. The success of van der Straet’s scenes were the basis of this printing epic which was first published in 1596 and again in the following centuries. [1.]

Something rather curious takes place within the set of engravings, for Homer’s Pygmies seem to have found their way from one plate into another. In Cavemen chasing elephants, several tiny individuals, outfitted in the same garb as the Pygmies in plate 22 (hat and waistcloth), have launched an attack on some unsuspecting elephants.

Cave men hunting elephants engraving
Hans Collaert after Jan van der Straet, Cavemen chasing elephats, (c.1596), engraving

In book eight of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History we read that: ‘The Cavemen on the frontier of Ethiopia, whose only food is elephant meat obtained by hunting, climb up trees near the elephants’ track and there keep a look out for the last of the whole column and jump down on to the hind part of its haunches’ [2.] A quote which is very aptly illustrated by the engraving. With the exception that the Ethiopians seem to have been depicted as Pygmies.

Homer’s tribe were said to live in Okeanos (Oceanus), a location sometimes interpreted as the Nile, Africa, where cranes migrate. The cranes ‘make for the rivers of Ocean to bring death and destruction to the Pygmies, launching their wicked assault from the air.’ [3.] So it seems that the writings of these two ancient authors, Homer and Pliny, were combined in the creation of these two engravings. Whether either literary source was based on factual evidence or fantasy concerning the existence of an ancient Pygmy tribe, the texts and the engraved series stimulates a hunger to learn more about exotic lands, people and animals.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)


[1.] Joannes Stradanus and his Hunting Scenes

[2.] Pliny: Natural History, Plinii: Naturalis Historia, Liber VIII, Loeb Classics Library

[3.] The Iliad Homer; originally translated by E.V. Rieu; revised and updated by Peter Jones with D.C.H. Rieu; edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Jones, London Penguin Classics, 2014, p. 45

Dark imaginings: A new exhibition and website launched

Dark imaginings: Gothic tales of wondera new exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery, was officially launched on March 1st.

Dark imaginings explores the emerging 18th century Gothic sensibility in literature, art and music, primarily as represented in the rare book, print and music holdings of the Baillieu Library.

This heightened  creative mode abstracted nightmarish images form an earlier medieval (or ‘Gothic’) age, and fused them with a Romantic focus on imagination and emotion, to create a literary and artistic tradition of thrilling originality.

The exhibition celebrates several important 2018 anniversaries, including the publication of the first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the birth of Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, and references aspects of the Gothic into the 19th century and beyond.

Sitting alongside the exhibition is a new and enthralling website featuring Gothic research by scholars of the Gothic, postgraduate students and Special Collections curators. There is also an exciting opportunity for all students of the University of Melbourne to enter the micro-story competition. The exhibition and website are a timely celebration of all things wild, gloomy and fearful.

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