The Making of Portrait Miniatures Using Playing Cards as a Painting Support | Porträtminiaturen mit Spielkarten

Abstract: In Tudor England portrait miniatures were frequently painted on playing cards. Precise instruction is provided by Edward Norgate: “Take an ordinary playing card, polish it, and make it so smooth as possibly you can (the white side of it); make it everywhere even and clean from spots, then choose the best abortive parchment, and cutting out a piece equal to your card, with fine and clean starch paste it on the card. Which done, let it dry; then making your grindstone as clean as may be, lay the card on the stone, the parchment side downward, and then polish it on the back side; it will make it much the smoother. You must paste your parchment so that the outside of the skin may be outward, it being the smoothest and best side to work on.”

But is the playing card only an arbitrary picture support that was selected by painters mainly for its specific material qualities? This article is devoted to the relationship between painters of coats of arms and miniature painters in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as well as the question whether there is more behind the choice of “ordinary” playing cards than first meets the eye.

Fig. 1: Hans Holbein, Mrs Jane Small, formerly Mrs Pemberton, circa 1536, portrait miniature and playing card, 5.2 cm diameter. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P.40&A-1935). Digital image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Anyone taking up the study of portrait miniature painting in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries is immediately struck by the ubiquitous appearance of playing cards as painting support. It is all the more striking that these are barely mentioned in the literature and that there are almost no illustrations of such playing card backings. This may be because for a long time the reason for their use was supposedly mainly a practical one. For example, we read that playing cards were made of a pasteboard composed of several sheets of paper glued together. They were rather inexpensive, frequently thrown away after use, and therefore served as a handy material for artists and craftsmen in search of extra support for small paintings on paper or parchment. We know that the earliest portrait miniatures were routinely painted in watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, the vellum having been pasted onto the unprinted side of a playing card. This practice is mentioned in even the earliest treatises and recommended to painters of miniatures, as in the well-known passages by Nicolas Hilliard and Edward Norgate: 

Take an ordinary playing card, polish it, and make it so smooth as possibly you can (the white side of it); make it everywhere even and clean from spots, then choose the best abortive parchment, and cutting out a piece equal to your card, with fine and clean starch paste it on the card. Which done, let it dry; then making your grindstone as clean as may be, lay the card on the stone, the parchment side downward, and then polish it well on the back side; it will make it much the smoother. You must paste your parchment so that the outside of the skin may be outward, it being the smoothest and best side to work on.

Edward Norgate, Miniatura, or the Art of Limning, edited by Martin Hardie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919), 19–20.

(Fig. 1) The fine portrait features of Jane Small, née Pemberton, for example, were reproduced on the back of just such an ordinary printed playing card, yet Hans Holbein’s delicate painting was placed in an elaborately crafted medallion frame decorated with enamels and pearls and displaying the Pemberton coat of arms on the back. The Latin inscription reveals that at the time the portrait was painted, that is around 1536, Jane was 23 years old. It was presumably commissioned on the occasion of her marriage to Nicholas Small. Small was a neighbour of Holbein’s, a successful merchant, not an aristocrat, so such a simple support as a playing card is not especially surprising at first, despite the exquisite painting and framing. But what are we to make of the fact that the first portrait miniature Nicholas Hilliard painted of Queen Elizabeth I, dated 1572 and thus her earliest known miniature portrait, was also executed on a playing card, and that a lady is pictured on the back of the card, namely a playing-card Queen? (Fig. 2) The playing card was not intended to be visible, just as in other examples where the back remains covered, but the correspondence between the portrait miniature and the imagery on the support medium invites reflection. In the case of the portrait miniature of Elizabeth I, the fact that it was painted on a Queen card would appear to have been a deliberate joke—perhaps even more than that. In order to explore possible correlations between the front and back sides, portrait and card, we will now turn to playing-card scholarship to discover the functions and traditions of the medium and will then come back to portrait miniature painting and attempt to connect the two fields of study.

Fig.2: Nicholas Hilliard, Queen Elizabeth I, with playing card (“Queen of Diamonds”) used as painting support, 1572, watercolour on vellum, 5.1 × 4.8 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 108). Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London (All rights reserved).

The Introduction of Playing Cards in Europe

It is uncertain, when playing cards were introduced into Europe, but the first prohibitions on card playing from 1367 in Bern and 1377 in Florence and contemporary theological treatises like that of the Dominican Johannes von Rheinfelden, probably written in Basel, suggest that they appeared in the 14th century, first in Italy, Switzerland, and southwestern Germany. Even in these early mentions of it, card playing is interpreted allegorically, as a metaphor for fate, life, society, and so on. For example, in his foreword Von Rheinfelden explains the aims of his treatise: for one he proposes to derive from card games, with reference to their different “courts” (suits), moral directives for noblemen (he explains that the four suits represent the successive empires of the Babylonians, Persians, Macedonian-Greeks, and Romans), and for another to derive with reference to the numbered cards similar directives for common people. Again in the 1432 treatise The Golden Game by the so-called Master Ingold, a Dominican monk, an analogy is established in which the blank card resembles a naked man, who is then “painted” with his role in society. Over several pages Ingold compares the dress of individual classes with the naked natural body and the “painted paper” of playing cards, and finally concludes with respect to the King and Queen: “It is all only paper.”1

Thus it can be established that playing cards reflect social and gender hierarchies. One thinks, for example, of the Ambras Court Playing Cards from the 1450s. The figures on the cards represent the hierarchy of feudal society as numbered one to ten in Roman numerals, plus a Queen and King. The suits depict various social classes or professions of the time, and the number of each card represents the rank of their roles at the king’s court—the suits representing the coats of arms of four kingdoms: France, Germany, Bohemia, and Hungary. In addition to playing for world domination, genealogical relationships could also be simulated— for example, in early Italian Tarot decks, which were probably produced to mark dynastic marriages and which bore family coats of arms, those of the Milanese Visconti, for example. On early South German cards, in turn, the iconography of the often amorous hunt plays a major role as a source of both courtly and gender-based motifs. We again encounter all these features—the hierarchy of sexes and classes in relation to dynastic-political ties and the pictorial rhetoric of heraldry and courtly love—in the context of the portrait miniature. The earliest surviving examples of playing cards, such as the so-called Stuttgart Deck from the 1430s, were elaborately painted by illuminators, not serially printed.2 Ulrike Wörner was stimulated by the uninterrupted provenience of this oldest painted deck to look more closely at the intertwined family relationships between the Visconti-Sforza, Wittelsbach, Valois, and Habsburg courts. She plausibly concludes that early decks of cards were given to young brides as wedding gifts, part of celebratory culture, so such women, when moving to the home of their new husbands, might function as agents of cultural transfer by way of the game of cards.3

The Genesis of the English Pack and Its Derivation from Rouen Cards

Over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries the medium’s inherent mobility led to an explosive production and distribution of printed examples along with a transformation of their motifs. There is evidence that foreign playing cards were imported into England early in the 15th century. These probably came from France and included cards of the Italian-Spanish pattern as well as the French variety. According to some sources they were a favourite pastime during the reign of Henry VII (1497-1509), and in fact there are court records of the debt Elizabeth of York incurred while playing cards. Henry’s marriage with Elizabeth ended the so-called Wars of the Roses, the decades-long feud between the houses of Lancaster and York. But already under his predecessor, Edward IV (1442–83), while the warring was at its height, card playing had become permanently established in the realm. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Edward was born in Rouen, at that time a centre for the manufacture and trade in playing cards. Already in the third year of Edward IV’s reign a statute was issued prohibiting, as from the following Michaelmas Day (Sept. 20, 1464 [?]), the import into England and Wales of various “’chaffares, wares, or things written below’. These were numerous and miscellaneous, including dripping pans, tennis balls, daggers, woodknives, bodkins, tailor’s shears, razors, and ‘Cards a Juer’, otherwise playing cards”.4 “The Statute (…) is evidence that all these wares had been manufactured in England, and that the English card-makers had suffered from foreign competition. Accordingly, we may assume that English cards were probably manufactured in England from about 1450 onwards.”5

In ordinary decks the suits underwent a major change at this time and were simplified. It is commonly believed that the four suits in a modern English deck (clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds) were derived from those of French decks (trèfle, pique, coeur, carreau), which evolved in turn from the Germanic suits (hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves) around 1480. The Germans adopted their suits from the Latin ones (cups, coins, clubs, and swords). One legend has it that the French suits represent the four social classes: spades the nobility, hearts the clergy, diamonds vassals or merchants, and clubs peasants. In the German tradition, however, bells (which became the French diamonds) stood for the nobility, and leaves (which became the French clubs) for the merchant middle class. As French cards were exported to England around that time, the English carried over their names for clubs and spades from the older Latin suits. Only when imports of foreign playing cards were banned in England in 1628 did the English begin to produce their own pack, adopting Pierre Maréchal’s Rouen pack of c. 1567 as its prototype.6

Repeated playing bans attest to the popularity and the symbol-laden significance of card games. According to Edward Hall, in the The Triumphant Reigne of King Henry the VIII (1548?), a proclamation was issued in England in May, 1526, against “all unlawfull games, accordying to the statues made in his behalf, and Commissions awarded into every shire for the execuseon of the same, so that in all places “Tables, Dice, Cards and Bowles were taken and burnt”. As about this period, Christmastide was the only season of the year when it was lawful for the “working classes” to play cards. In 1541 a statute was passed, on the petition of bow-makers, fletchers, and others interested in archery, enacting that husbandmen, artificers, craftsmen, serving men, apprentices and labourers of all kinds must not play cards, bowls, quoits and various other games “out of Christmas”.7 One result of the 1541 statute was that up to a comparatively recent period cards were regarded as an almost essential part of Christmas revelry. This is what George Wither, in his lines on Christmas (c. 1620), meant when he wrote:

Now Kings and Queens poor sheepcotes have,

And mate with everybody;

The honest now may play the Knave,

And wise men play the noddy.

George Wither: “For Christmas: Lo, now is come our joyful’st feast!”
Words:, in: A Miscelany of Epigrams, Sonnets, Epitaphs, and such other Verses, See: Juvenilia. Poems by George Wither, contained in the collections of his Juvenilia which appeared in 1626 and 1633, Part III. (Printed for the Spencer Society, 1871), 915-919.

Here it is apparent that in England up into the early 17th century card playing was still considered privileged leisure-time amusement, first restricted to the nobility and its courts and only later to merchants and tradesmen. 

“Under the Cloake of Gaye Names”: The Meaning of Playing Cards

During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, card-playing was a favourite pastime with all-classes in England, even in remote country parishes. The records of Archdeacons’ visitations throughout England are full or references to cases of card-playing on Sunday in practically all parts of England. This again spurred a last resistance. John Northbrooke of Bristol, for example, who preached and wrote against plays and dramatic performances, was vehement in his vituperations against card playing. His Spiritus est Vicarius Christi was published about the year 1576 or 1579. It is, as the sub-title indicates, a treatise attacking “vaine Playes or Enterludes, with other idle Pastimes, etc., commonly used on the Sabboth Day”.8 It is important to note that Northbrooke’s attacks went hand in hand with anti-theatre movements of the time, and that he equated card playing with a stage play, with the “deceit” of acting: 

I say with good Father Saint Cyprian: the playe at Cardes is an invention of the Deuill, which he founde out that he might the easier bring in Ydolatrie amongst men. For the Kings and Coate cards that we use nowe were in olde tie the ymages of Idols and false gods: which since they that would seeme Christjans have changed intu Charlemagne, Launcelot, Hector, and such like names, because they could not seeme to imitate their ydolatrie herein, and yet maintable the playe it self, the very inuention of Satan, the Deuill, and would disguise this mischief under the cloake of suche gaye names.

Northbrooke, Spiritus Est Vicarius Christi in Terra. This relates here to a pamphlet wrongly ascribed to St. Cyprian, De aleatoribus, in which gaming was linked to the devil. This text served as an indirect source for early modern writers.

The most interesting thing about Northbrooke’s invective is his assertion that the cards used in England about the year 1575, bore “gaye names”, including Charlemagne (King of Hearts), Hector (Knave of Diamonds) and Lancelot (Knave of Clubs). His polemic was thus directed mainly at the deck’s “Kings and Court cards,” thereby indicating that the French names were already used by English card makers. 

In the 16th century French card makers started to assign mythological or biblical names to the face cards. In his rich compilation of materials on playing cards Gurney Benham determined that “the habit of giving names to the Court cards appears to have been a continuation or outgrowth of the names given to the Tarot ‘atouts’. Some of the earliest French ‘court’ cards had names inscribed; other were taken as ‘portraits’. (…) Almost from the first the King of Hearts was Charles – no ordinary, commonplace Charles, but Charlemagne, the Great Charles, the super-monarch (…). He was, as a rule, the ‘Emperor’ in the Tarot packs.”9 Such designations of the face cards were known in England as well. A very rare political tract, for instance, issued during the Civil War, probably in 1642, describes the mutiny of the ‘City-Clubs’ against the King of Hearts, meaning Charles I: 

The bloody Game at Cards

As it was played betwixt the




And the rest of His Suite, against the Residue of the packe of cards.

In the text the King of Clubs is said to have been “indeede a brave and noble Earle whose title is exprest by two of the last Letters”, the Knave of Clubs “a kinde of broken merchant, having a Roundhead”, and as for the ‘Spade-men’ they are “Country fellows of all Suites, red and blew and tawnie” while the ‘Diamond-men’ were the rich citizens. Although it cannot be explained with certainty who is meant by “the brave and noble Earle”, W. Gurney Benham has convincingly argued that it was probably Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, a general in the Parliamentary army and the son of Queen Elizabeths favourite.”10 But even if his identity is uncertain, this document clearly shows the extent to which the face cards were associated with political events and personalities of the day. In the time of James I, for example, the pamphleteer Samuel Rowlands (c. 1575-1630) wrote verses about playing cards and their makers: A Merry Meetinge, or ‘tis Mery When Knaves Mete was publicly burnt by order in 1600 but was re-issued (expurgated) as The Knave of Clubbs in 1609. That publication was followed in 1612 by The Knave of Harts and in 1613 (?) More Knaves Yet? The Knaves of Spades and Diamonds. These pamphlets were satirical in nature, and intended as mirrors of society. The 1613 edition was even illustrated with images of the four knaves, probably made from printing blocks actually were used by the card makers of his day (which you can see on this slide.11 It is also of interest that in his introduction Rowlandson critically unmasks the addiction to pleasure and passion for gaming in his time, but at the same time asks in a “Supplication to Card-Makers” that the designs used for court cards might be improved and modernised. Again and again the attention of contemporaries was drawn to the face cards in the deck and the possibility of understanding them as representatives of social hierarchies and embodiments of virtues and vices. 

Many of the identifications changed over time, whereas others remained fixed. The Queen of Hearts, for instance, was already regularly identified in the French deck as ‘Judith’, “because she was looked upon as one of the most courageous women on record”12. In the English deck, however, at least for a certain period of time, the Queen of Hearts represented Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII. The Knave of Hearts, in the traditional deck, was commonly called ‘La Hire’—which was the nickname or surname of the historic figure Etienne (Stephen) de Vignoles, known to be hot-blooded and excitable.13 The King of Spades, in turn, was regularly called ‘David’, as ‘Spades’ means ‘Swords’ (spade in Italian), denoting the military or warrior class. His consort the Queen of Spades was correspondingly associated with Pallas Athene (Minerva), the Goddess of War, whereas from an early period ‘Hogier’ was a favourite name for the Knave of Spades. The King of Diamonds had been thought of as Julius Caesar since a very remote period. He is the King of Money, as the paving tiles in the French pack were thought well suited to denote the wealthy class. At the king’s side stood ‘Rachel’, the Queen of Diamonds, who was “beautiful and well favoured and a keen business woman”, the ideal and model woman “who built the house of Israel”14. That leaves the Knave of Diamonds, who represented ‘Hector’, half-brother to Lancelot of the Lake and one of the Knights of the Round Table. Appropriately, the Knave of Clubs was associated with Lancelot himself, and the King of Clubs with King Arthur. In this it was generally recognized that Hector was a worthless sort and betokened misfortune, whereas Lancelot, as the embodiment of chivalry, was considered an extremely good omen. Interestingly, the Queen of Clubs was called ‘Argine’, an altogether imaginary figure and at the same time an anagram of ‘Regina’, thus the epitome of queenliness. Benham mentions that in England the Queen of Clubs seems to have been a popular card. “She used to be known as Queen Bess, which was a big compliment.”15

Let us summarize:

1) Repeated playing bans and early treatises attest to the popularity and the symbol-laden significance of card games as early as the 14th century

 2) Decks of cards reflect social and gender roles 

 3) Expensive painted decks of cards incorporating heraldic motifs and genealogical references were given to noble brides as part of their dowries

 4) Playing cards are documented in England beginning in the mid 15th century; they were imported from the Continent, with the French arrangement of suits—clubs, spades, hearts, diamonds—already established

5) It is worth noting that it was only around 1480, under the rule of the Valois, that in France the suit “diamonds” (“carreaux”) was developed out of the German suit “Schellen” (“bells”), symbolizing the (high) nobility

 6) In England card playing became established mainly at the court of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York; in its beginnings it was closely associated with the Tudor dynasty

 7) In the 16th century French card makers began to assign mythological or biblical names to the face cards, David to the King of Spades, for example, and Judith to the Queen of Hearts, and they were used as painting supports according to the sitter’s social status. 

Text: Karin Leonhard

Empfohlene Zitation / Suggested citation: Karin Leonhard, The Making of Portrait Miniatures Using Playing Cards as a Painting Support, in: Spotlight, hrsg./ed. by Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten,, 11.09.23 [Abrufdatum / Date of Access].

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
techneredaktion (2023, 11. September). The Making of Portrait Miniatures Using Playing Cards as a Painting Support | Porträtminiaturen mit Spielkarten. Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten. Abgerufen am 25. Mai 2024, von

  1. Erward Schröder (ed.), Das goldene Spiel von Meister Ingold (Straßburg: Karl J. Trübner, 1882). []
  2. The variety of techniques used for these early playing cards is astonishing, and attests to the high quality of execution. Scholarship is therefore at odds: were the painted cards really played with, and if so, how long? Or were they considered simply luxury objects and thus part of the princely art collection? Even the most valuable decks of cards show traces of wear, though already in the 16th century they were relegated, the inventories tell us, to courtly Kunstkammer as antiquarian valuables. Then for what purpose were they originally created? []
  3. Further, scholarship has meanwhile managed to identify the international Basel as the centre of early painted playing card production—here Italian, German, and French formal idioms are combined as well as the techniques and materials of book illumination and panel painting. []
  4. William Gurney Benham, Playing Cards: History and Secrets of the Pack (London: Spring Books, 1969), 26. []
  5. Ibidem. []
  6. These earliest English playing cards, again, are very scarce. Few specimens have survived, and little is known about the. []
  7. Benham, Playing Card, 26: “Even at Christmas time they must only play such games in their masters’ houses or in their masters’ presence. The main purpose of the Statute was to concentrate men’s energies on archery, but there was a long preamble about the dire results of gambling an its devastating effects on morals and religion and domestic happiness. Henry VIII was himself a confirmed gambler and often lost more money at cards than was convenient.” []
  8. John Northbrooke, Spiritus Est Vicarius Christi in Terra: The Poore Mans Garden (London: W. Williamson, 1573). []
  9. Benham, Playing Cards, 78. []
  10. Ibid., 79. []
  11. ”Only the four Knaves are shown by Rowlands (…); it will be seen (…) that these derive from the French (Rouen) type of card and are closely related to the English playing cards of the 18th and 19th centuries.” These two pictures are in fact the only representations we possess of English playing cards earlier than the reign of Charles II, with the the exception of the picture of the King of Hearts, published ca. 1642. “The letterpress is of interest in various ways. It tells us distinctly that the “idle-headed French” devised the pattern adopted for English playing cards. It also tells us that card-makers had an established trade in London at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.” Benham, Playing Cards, 45. []
  12. Ibid., 80. []
  13. „In our English pack the Knave of Hearts has always been shown with his face in profile. There is no subtle significance in this. There are two ‚red‘ knaves and in order to distinguish them more completely the Knave of Hearts turns to his right in profile, whilst the Knave of Diamonds is shown nearly full-face. The French distinguish in like manner, but they make La Hire full face and the Knave of Diamonds (Hector) side-face“. Benham, Playing Cards, 94). []
  14. Ibid., S. 109. []
  15. Ibid., S. 119. For further reading see: Karin Leonhard: Game of Thrones. Early Modern Playing Cards and Portrait Miniature Painting, in: British Art Studies. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. 2020(17). eISSN 2058-5462. Available under: doi: 10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-17/kleonhard []
Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search