Saturday, 13 June 2015

Elephant No. 133: From the Archives: Playing Card

It's the weekend, and I'm taking it easy, so here is one of the early postings from the original Elephant a Day blog. Enjoy!

Today I felt like doing something quiet and sedentary, so I decided to make a traditional playing card.

Playing cards were invented in Ancient China around the ninth century A.D. By the eleventh century, they could be found throughout Asia, likely transported along the Silk Road. Ancient Chinese "money cards" had four suits: coins, strings of coins, myriads (10,000) of coins, and tens of myriads. Some scholars believe that the first playing cards in China might have been a form of actual currency.

Playing cards came to Europe in the late fourteenth century, probably from Mameluke Egypt. The Egyptian deck had 52 cards, with four suits: polo sticks, coins, swords and cups. Each suit had ten number cards, featuring "pips" or suit symbols. There were also three "court" cards: King, Deputy King and Under-Deputy.

The Egyptian deck may have influenced the design of East Indian cards, although some suggest that it might have been the other way around. Early Indian cards are quite distinctive: they are circular, intricately hand-painted, and have anywhere from eight to thirty-two suits.

Ganjifa cards, with ten suits showing the ten avatars of Vishnu
Nineteenth century
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

By the late fourteenth century, the use of playing cards had spread across Europe. The earliest cards were individually handmade and expensive; however, by the fifteenth century, decks printed from woodcuts had begun to appear. Most early woodcuts were coloured after printing, either by hand or using a stencil. A deck usually had four suits, although five suits were also common. In Germany, the suits were hearts, bells, leaves and acorns. Italian and Spanish cards used swords, wands, cups and coins.

The four suits most commonly used today—hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs—originated in France around 1480. The club (trèfle, or clover, in French) was likely derived from the acorn on German cards; the spade, from the German leaf. Europeans also changed the court cards to represent European royalty: originally with King, Knight and Knave, and later with King, Queen and Jack.

At first, the King was always the highest card. As time went on, the Ace took on greater significance, eventually becoming the card with the greatest value. Some have suggested that this concept was given a boost during the French Revolution, when the peasantry wrested power from the monarchy. 

Court cards with mirror images were invented in the late eighteenth century. This was so that players would not be tempted to turn the court cards right side up, which might hint at the cards they held. The use of the manufacturer's logo on the ace of spades began during the reign of James I of England (1556–1625), who passed a law requiring an insignia to show that duty had been paid on the cards. Duty was paid on playing cards in the United Kingdom until 1960.

The most common size for playing cards is 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches (poker size) or 2-1/4 x 3-1/2 inches (bridge size). Traditionally, the Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts, and King of Diamonds are drawn in profile—these are the "one-eyed" cards. The rest of the court cards are depicted full-face. The King of Hearts is the only King with no mustache, and is also typically shown with a sword his head, making him look as though he's stabbing himself.

For today's elephant, I decided to make a standard poker-sized card, based on the King of Hearts from the Bicycle Playing Card deck.

To start, I traced around one of the Bicycle cards. Expecting that I would screw up at least once, I made four blanks, all from inexpensive bristol board.

In order to create a mirror image of the Elephant King of Hearts, I drew a line across the middle of the card, then sketched in the elephant. Although I used the general idea of the King of Hearts from the Bicycle deck, I decided not to have the elephant stabbing himself in the head with a sword. Although the King of Hearts may traditionally be nicknamed the "suicide king", I didn't want a suicide elephant.

Drawing a mirror image freehand is actually more difficult than you'd think. Short of making a grid (which I knew I would greatly dislike), there's no easy way of doing this. What worked best for me was to draw a bit of the design on one half, then flip it around and draw as close to the same thing as possible on the other half. I guess I was hoping my fingers would have some sort of memory of what they'd just done. It wasn't always as precise as I would have liked, but it came out close enough.

I wanted something on the back as well, but the Bicycle Poker Card design is beyond what I can do on such a small surface with a limited amount of time. I did another mirror design with a few nods to the idea behind the Bicycle design, but it's nowhere near as detailed as the card that inspired it.

I had originally planned to use drafting pens for this. I had blue, red and black drafting ink on hand, and planned to fill the yellow in with coloured pencil afterwards. Unfortunately, the blue ink was old and not very cooperative, so after a few attempts with ink, I went with coloured pencil instead.

I wanted to stick more or less with the same colours as are on the Bicycle cards, so that's the colour palette I used.

I didn't get quite the crisp result I expected, but I certainly learned a lot about drawing mirror images. And old ink. And the propensity of coloured pencil to smudge. And how you can't erase lead pencil after you've put coloured pencil in the same vicinity.

It was definitely an interesting exercise. Just don't expect a pack of Elephant Poker Cards anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In the French playing cards on which most modern decks are based, the King of Hearts is said to depict Charlemagne, Emperor of the Franks.

In A.D. 802, Charlemagne received an Asian elephant named Abul-Abbas from the Caliph of Baghdad. Abul-Abbas was brought from Baghdad by a man called Isaac, who had been sent to the Caliph on Charlemagne's orders. Following the deaths of the two other emissaries sent to Baghdad with him, Isaac returned alone with the elephant. The journey took many months: first by land along the Egyptian coast and across modern Algeria and Tunisia, then by sea from Tunisia to Europe.

Abul-Abbas was a big hit in his new home, and was exhibited many times at court. He was eventually housed in Augsburg, in today's southern Bavaria. Sadly, Abul-Abbas died of pneumonia when he was in his forties, likely from swimming in the Rhine. His bones were preserved at Lippenham, Denmark until the eighteenth century.

Some say that Abul-Abbas was an albino elephant. Legend also suggests that he was used as a war elephant in A.D. 804, when the Franks were attacked by the Danes. Mobilizing his troops, Charlemagne is said to have asked that Abul-Abbas be sent to him, so that the elephant could take part in the battle.

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