A game of cards

Among Douce’s many correspondents, Richard Twiss is probably my favourite -his style is maddening, since he constantly jumps from subject to subject, but his letters are very entertaining. He bombarded Douce with numerous enquiries about all sorts of matters often interspersed with gossip and pieces of domestic information. For instance, on 13 July 1789, Twiss sent Douce some queries concerning his latest book, to which he proudly added the following news:

My son has just farrow’d eleven pigs, one of which is dead, the rest with the mother as well as can be expected. you will come to the [christen]ing, after which we will eat one of them. I wonder the World has not noticed the book; I sent them one.

These lines tell us not only of Twiss Jr.’s occupations on the eve of the Storming of the Bastille, but also of his father’s nervousness regarding the recent publication of his second book on Chess. Table games were one of many interests that Twiss and Douce shared: Douce supplied Twiss with quotes on chess from his library, while Twiss sent Douce playing cards that he had acquired in his travels:

I wanted to send you the cards but I do not know how, you had better take them yourself; the pack I have was made in France 1760. The suits are Denier, Coupe. Epée & Baston a Cavalier to each suit is 56. & 22 more picture cards. is 78. of which the last is le Mat. not mate, but il matto. the fool. This pack is called Cartes de Taro. There are no other sort of cards used in Spain but these & the common ones. they are likewise used in France, Switzerland, Italy & Holland. I saw the grand duke of Tuscany play with such a pack with a French gentleman, at Florence. & I was told the method of playing a particular game with them, in the nature of piquet the last time I was at Marseille (in 83). which I have forgotten if you are desirous of learning to play, I know several swiss in London, & three Spaniards are just arriv’d, who I suppose are able to teach you.

Douce’s folders of images of games and pastimes include a section on Gaming with Cards, Dice &, whose contents range from contemporary prints, such as this aquatint after Maria Cosway:

Caroline Watson, after Maria Cosway, The Winter's Day Delineated (plate 11), 1803, etching and aquatint (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

… to gaming-related scenes cut from seventeenth-century books of emblems:

Emblem 36 from Johan de Brune's 'Emblemata, of Zinne-werck', Amsterdam, 1661 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

As Twiss’s letter suggests, Douce also collected actual playing cards. Their function was double, since they aided his historical research on games and pastimes, while the earlier examples were useful as ‘evidence in the vexed question of the invention of printing’ (see The Douce legacy, Oxford, 1984, pp. 121-123). The cards mentioned by Twiss did become part of his friend’s collection -they were published in Marseille by François Bourlion although, according to Douce’s annotation, the pack had been bought in Spain.

The material gathered by Douce was ultimately put to good use by his friend Samuel Weller Singer, whose Researches into the history of playing cards appeared in 1816. Singer’s book is illustrated with many examples from Douce’s collection, such as these “Oriental” cards on ivory:

He also reproduces Douce’s round cards of birds and rabbits, but not this very fine engraving of the Eight of Dogs by Israhel van Meckenem after the Master ES, now in the Ashmolean Museum (WA1863.2096):

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