i was fortunate to have taken chris van allsberg’s pen and ink classes at risd, in which you spent a great deal of time drawing—and i mean the most exacting kind of drawing. if you are familiar with his work, you know what i mean. i wasn’t terribly good, though i believe i was on the other side of competent. mind you, this was thirty years ago and long before chris had attained the stature he holds today. while drawing, i would often play a game with myself. i was using a dip pen then and occasionally a blob of ink would fall where it wasn’t supposed to. if this happened, i would stare at that blob and wonder what drawing could emerge from it. a face, a hand, an image that would come from the imagination rather than drawing what i saw. when i bought these cards, this memory returned to me. i have written about similar playing cards before but what makes this deck special is that each card is hand-drawn and unique. each card is a unique work of art. it’s a folk art deck and the cards, with the exception of the face cards, exhibit the most original depiction of each suit. every card is a canvas that tells a story: the fishermen; men riding donkeys; fencers and more. it’s like exploring someone’s truly wonderful imagination.
i don’t have an interesting story about these cards. i was not rummaging in an attic. i was not at some far-flung flea market. alas, they were found on ebay. evil ebay. it’s a love/hate relationship. i recall visiting a bookshop, a small one upstate, at a time when my partner still joined me in the hunt— a time long ago. i discovered a book with an alvin lustig jacket, one from the new direction series. lovely. not sure which one but they’re always hard to find and this one had no price. i brought it over to the dealer and he told me to wait a moment. he went to his computer—this was very early internet days—and brought up bookfinder.com. he typed in the title and voilà, a dozen examples of the book appeared. five dollars to fifty five. i was blown away. the search was forever altered. ebay has refined its search engine and now proposes ‘you might like.’ among the search results appear, i generally opt for ‘other items from seller.’ that’s how i found these cards. needless to say, i was in awe. i hope you are, too.
in several posts, i mentioned that i collect playing cards. actually, although i have several reference books on the subject, i really don’t collect playing cards. they just present themselves as irresistible pieces of artwork. mind you, often it is a card with just a club beautifully centered in a white rectangle. i am hopelessly in love with the endless variation. here are four that i picked up at an ephemera fair years ago. if i remember the price, it’s usually because i paid more than i should have. since i don’t remember how much these cost, it must not have been too much. as with so much in my collection, i know little about these cards and, unfortunately, i do not own the entire deck. however, these four cards are enough to make me smile. ‘a batch of barristers’ is so amusing. hearts and spades as faces. tea cartons as diamonds. i can’t image how the clubs were used. i search for playing cards
on ebay but have never seen anything like these. there is one particular dealer who has many nineteenth-century cards, often just selling one card from the deck. like so many categories of collecting, this is a culture unto its own, with its terminology, grades and rarities. i have no idea where these cards fall, but i bought them because they are unique to my eye and I was happy to add them to what is now a collection of playing cards.
as a member of the ephemera society, i run across all kinds of interesting people. one such character is gejus van diggele. i have not made his acquaintance but i certainly believe he is a remarkable man with a specific interest. he has accumulated thousands of antique playing cards, each with the most beautiful graphics you have ever seen. what mr. diggele finds interesting, however, is the secondary use of playing cards. if i could only be so focused. in an article for the ephemera society, i learned about his interest and discovered his website where he investigates and speculates on any secondary purpose a card may have served. he writes, “why did people use playing cards on which to write? in the first place, because there were a lot more playing cards than sheets of writing paper….the first playing cards were made completely by hand. the great demand for them required mass production, so playing cards became a real industry in which the many makers competed fiercely with one another. to keep costs down, the backs of the playing cards were left blank.” ah! I never new this. when i read his article i went through my playing card collection and found these two examples with writing on them. (of course i have a playing card collection! don’t you?) I remember buying them at a paper fair for their stark and simple beauty. mr. diggele tells a story of buying an old playing card at the paris flea market and complaining to the touchy dealer that it had writing on one side in order to obtain a better price—when in fact that was his main interest in buying the card. we all have our secrets. i have neither the knowledge nor mr. diggele’s passion but i do share the desire to discover. i am rewarded by the wonderful simplicity and beauty that these cards possess. i sent pictures of my cards to mr. diggele but never heard back. maybe you can help unravel my cards’ story?