An unrequited love for playing cards


After a fascinating visit to the Playing Card Museum in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Northern Spain the other day, I can honestly say that it was gutting to leave without an amazing pack in my pocket. After seeing beautiful design after beautiful design it was awful to see a museum shop without one pack on sale.  My only option was to take some photographs, which was still a delight. The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of cards –  6000 apparently. It did however also feature movement-triggered cabinet lighting that meant dancing like St Vitus if you wanted to look at a full cabinet for more than 10 seconds. Needlesstosay, I probably lost weight in there.

How wonderful to learn that early cards had to be played only one way up and that they couldn’t easily be fanned in the hand (as both suit and number were not often in the corner in early packs).  How interesting and disturbing that sometimes they had racial and political motivations such as these shown below from England.




It was fascinating to see the various arrangements of the suits and the quality of the illustrations that accompanied different packs.

Even more amazing though to see the cabinet where the diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades had been cleverly integrated into the designs with enormous sophistication (called ‘transformation cards’). Look at the complexity of these compositions from the 19th century, dating back to 1806. 20130807-205320.jpg


On reflection, just catching a dancing glance of a radical graphic innovation that’s 200 hundred years old was more than worth the disappointment of not being able to take a card home. Instead it gives you a new appreciation for every shape of diamond, every illustration and every composition on the pack you’ve got at home and that’s why museums offer an experience money just can’t buy.


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