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Fancy or Non-standard Patterns
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The patterns known as "fancy" or "non-standard" feature particular illustrations referring to a given subject or theme which the deck is inspired by, and after which it is usually named.
Europe deck by Fournier (Spain)
Various illustrations appear in place of the traditional court cards - i.e. the jack (J), queen (Q) and king (K) - as in the first sample shown below on the left, in which the personages are modelled on European royal courts of the late Middle Ages-early Renaissance.
In some editions the aces too may have further additional decorations (second sample, inspired by the 18th century fashion), as well as the jokers.
In a fewer number of cases all the cards of the deck feature a special picture.
Fancy editions contain the same number of cards as any generic international deck: 52 subjects divided into four suits, and a variable number of jokers (more often one to three), so what makes them "special" is only their design, not their composition.
In some northern European countries, such as Germany, France, Netherlands, etc. fancy decks with a fewer number of cards exist: these editions are based on the country's own local standard composition, such as 32 cards, or 36, etc. (see the relevant galleries).
Poker 700 deck by Masenghini (Italy);
courts and aces have an 18th century attire
Vremyena Goda ("Seasons of the Year") deck, by KZP (Russia),
with Russian indices for aces and courts
For the same reason, in some countries the courts are marked differently; common examples are the many French editions in which the indices are V, D and R (jack, queen and king, respectively), or the German ones marked B, D, K, or the Russian ones marked B, D and K, and T for aces. A full list of them can be found in the international index table page.
A sample with Russian indices is shown on the left.
Fancy decks may have generic backs, but very often these ones too are decorated with special textures, motifs, etc. which recall the theme featured on the cards' front.
Frequently sold in a presentation box, especially when they belong to a Bridge set (i.e. two decks with different backs), fancy editions often come with an enclosed leaflet or booklet that provides further details about the theme, such as historical or geographical notes, the names of the personages featured in the court cards, the artist who drew the pictures, etc.
America deck by Fournier (Spain), featuring
North-western Indians, Redskin Indians, Aztecs and Incas
and maps of northern and southern America on the jokers
Japan deck by Piatnik (Austria), with personages
referring to different Japanese historical periods
According to each edition's graphic scheme, i.e. which of the cards bears special illustrations, and how these illustrations relate to the traditional court personages, suit signs, jokers, etc., the large group of fancy patterns may be divided into further typologies:
- the ones in which fancy illustrations coexist with ordinary suit signs;
- the ones that also have non-standard signs and/or indices;
- the ones in which fancy illustrations replace the pips.
- In the most common variety, the specific theme of the deck is mainly reflected by the twelve court cards, whose characters are clothed in a relevant fashion, and sometimes are depicted as famous personages. Very often also the aces and the jokers have a special design. The pip cards may be traditional, but in some editions these subjects too may contain special elements, such as extra decorations in the white (blank) spaces, or ornate frames around the card, or a coloured background, etc.; these changes are always less glamorous than the ones found in the four aces.
Arab deck by Piatnik (Austria)
featuring Tuareg, Berbers, Bedouins and Turks
The suit signs too may have a standard look, or may be drawn with particular shapes referring to the theme of the deck, but in either case they are Diamonds, Hearts, Spades and Clubs, i.e. the usual signs, with the standard arrangement.
Lastly, also the motif on the backs is often consistent with the given subject.
- The second variety is not very different from the previous one, except for the suit signs and/or indices, which are no longer traditional: they are replaced by various shapes and symbols somehow related to the special theme.
The sample shown below is Grimaud's Les Géants d'un Mythe ("the giants of a myth"), in which the four suits are typical implements used for film-making: microphones, projectors, etc., yet shaped as the traditional Hearts, Clubs, etc. In other editions the suits may look even more different.
Les Géants d'un Mythe deck by Grimaud (France), featuring Oliver Hardy, Brigitte Bardot,
Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, etc. and a detail of the fanci suit signs
Sumio Kawakami's woodblock prints, by Okuno Karuta (Japan)
Also the sample on the left belongs to the same variety, although its graphic scheme is different from the previous one.
In these naive woodblock prints carved by the Japanese artist Sumio Kawakami, each of the four suits represents a late 16th century civilization: Spades are the Chinese, Clubs are the Japanese, Diamonds are Middle Eastern and Northern African people, and Hearts are the Westerners by the time they reached Japan. The original collection is dated 1939, and is now held by a museum.
Each pip card features only one traditional suit sign, merely as a reference, while the pips change according to the card's value: all aces have a distinctive symbol of the relevant civilization (a dragon for China, a unicorn for the Western world, etc.), 2s are typical buildings, 3s are birds, 4s are insects, 5s flowers, 6s trees, 7s fish, 8s animals, 9s household objects, and 10s are ships. Curiously, the fish featured in the 7 of Hearts (Westerners) are... mermaids!
A third example, on the right, is about the Crusades, and features important personages related to this historical age. The peculiarity of this pattern does not concern the suit signs but the indices, which are spelt in roman numerals, instead of the usual western ones. Roman numerals were actually found in some early tarots, and they are still used in their German regional variety for numbering the trump cards (refer to the tarot section for further details); but during the age of the Crusades, playing cards did not yet exist in Europe, and certainly not with French court indices: the V on the 5s could be easily mistaken for the jack's own V (Valet)!
Le jeu de cartes des Croisades (by Grimaud/France Cartes, France)
Tribù africane, Modiano (Italy)
- In the third kind of fancy deck a number of illustrations such as posters, views, models of cars or trains, or any other similar images, replace the central part of the card. The illustrations corresponding to court personages have no real relation with kings, queens or jacks. In these editions also the pip cards are variously illustrated, so the suit signs too are replaced.
When playing with these decks, the only way to tell the card's value is to read the small indices in the corners.
The sample shown above, which follows the aforesaid scheme, is dedicated to the African world: each of the cards features a picture of one or more African personages from various ethnic groups and tribes (Swahili, Zulu, etc.) and with various social ranks (chiefs, warriors, bush-doctors, and so on).
Another example is shown on the right: a collection of WWII propaganda posters, one on each card, making a total of 54 different (two of which are the jokers).
Second World War Historic Art Posters deck
(by Phillip Lewis Agencies, UK)
Ancient Egypt (by Lo Scarabeo, Italy)
One more, shown on the left, is based on ancient Egypt's papyri. In this case too standard suit signs only appear as indices, while the pips are non-standard, featured as Solar discs (matching the Diamonds suit), Chalices (for Hearts), Staves (for Clubs) and Knives (for Spades).
The choice of these particular signs is only apparently fancy; considering that Diamonds developed from the Italian and Spanish suit of Coins, the Hearts from Cups, the Clubs from Sticks or Batons, and the Spades from Swords, the four unusual shapes of the Ancient Egypt deck are perfectly understandable.
A last example of this group is the Mexican deck shown below on the right, about the Maya.
Each of the 52 subjects features a different glyph, coming from the special calendar used by this civilization. Besides the four traditional suits (Diamonds, Spades, Hearts and Clubs), a parallel system respectively consisting of Merchants, Warriors, Priests and Peasants is indicated by means of a red or black glyph on the right side of the card (see enlarged detail).
Furthermore, below the large index in Western numerals or letters, the value of the card is also expressed by means of Mayan numerals (1 to 13), and heads of gods which in the local culture matched these numbers.
Maya deck by Pronaco (Mexico), with a detail of the "Mayan suits"
The classification criteria described so far do not depend on the theme itself, but on how the same theme interacts with each card, replacing or modifying the traditional illustrations. In fact, several sample decks shown in this page are inspired by a similar theme, i.e. ethnic groups and civilizations, yet according to their graphic scheme they belong to different typologies.
Royal deck, made in China for the Russian market
Although these guidelines are very simple, and can be easily applied to any fancy design, among the great variety of non-standard patterns there are still a few cases which may be looked at as "borderline", such as the sample shown on the left, with Russian historical personages: the pips are Diamonds, Hearts, Spades and Clubs, yet quite elongated, and arranged inside white shapes that recall the same suit sign: this could loosely match either the features of group 1 or those of group 2.
Among non-standard patterns there is one more variety, rather different from the ones described above: the so-called TRANSFORMATION DECKS.
replica of a transformation deck by G.Payer, c.1850
They are the most sought for by collectors, but also the least common, because the peculiar illustrations they feature require both the artistic skills and the creative imagination of a talented artist. Actually, rather few patterns of this kind have ever been created, compared to the enormous number of more generic non-standard editions.
Transformation decks are not necessarily inspired by a particular theme, but in each subject the pips are cleverly disguised by additional illustrations, in which they are integrated as details of the picture.
Therefore, unlike any other fancy playing card edition, in these decks the most interesting subjects are the pip cards, rather than the courts or the jokers.
The more skilled is the author of the deck, the more the suit signs "disappear", as if camouflaged within the context of each illustration. Especially in early editions (see below), the richness of detail is amazing, even in subjects with few pips. The ones with many pips, instead, are often drawn horizontally.
Vanity Fair, reprint by Fournier (Spain)
Schwartz Katz, reprint by Il Solleone (Italy)
replicas of two decks by J.G. Cotta, printed in 1805 (above) and 1806,
held by the Fournier Museum, Alava-Gasteiz (Spain)
The sample above is taken from a special edition without court cards made in Nuremberg (Germany) in 1887 for the game of Schwartz Katz ("Black Cat"). The one on its left, instead, is the famous Vanity Fair deck, whose original was printed in 1895 by The U.S. Playing Card Co . Both specimens are modern replicas.
Transformation cards were first created at the beginning of the 19th century; the 1800s were indeed the golden age of this particular kind of playing cards.
The indisputable master of this form of art was the German publisher J.G. Cotta, active in Tübingen around the early 1800s. Cotta's editions used to feature exquisite monochrome etchings, inspired by a variety of themes; the courts instead had coloured illustrations, with non-standard designs, but their only suit sign was not disguised.
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