Dealing With Cards

playing cards

Everyone is familiar with the modern deck of playing cards. Most households own at least one pack and they have become a part of traditional cultures and customs. Yet, these decks of cards have been completely transformed since their origins several centuries ago. What we now take for granted has taken hundreds of years to reach its current format: four suits, red and black, court cards etc. Looking back through history, it is fascinating to see how our standard hearts, spades, clubs and diamond suits developed and why playing cards have remained a conventional pastime.

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Ming Dynasty Playing Card

The origins of playing cards are widely contested, however, it is generally accepted they were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The earliest evidence of playing cards in Europe dates to around the late 14th century, however, a 9th-century text, Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, describes the daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang (833-873) playing Yezi Gexi, a “leaf” game. These “leaves” are believed to be card-like pieces of paper featuring special designs or symbols. Rather than suits or numbers, the pictures revealed instructions or a forfeit to the players.

The rules of this “leaf” game are unknown, as are the visual appearance of the cards. It was not until 1294 that they were actually described in written documents. A legal document records that Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards that had been printed with woodblocks, and 36 taels (an old monetary unit), which suggests they may have been gambling illegally. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, a scholar called Lu Rong (1436-94) reports he was mocked at college for not knowing how to play cards.

British Sinologist and playing card enthusiast, William Henry Wilkinson (1858-1930), whose collection of Chinese cards can be found in the British Museum, undertook a comprehensive study of the history of playing cards in China. His results can be read in several books including Chinese Origin of Playing Cards (1895) and The Game of Khanhoo (1891). The latter explains the rules of a game developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

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Money-suited cards, 1905

Khanhoo, which roughly translates as “Watching the Tiger”, was a trick-taking game using “money-suited cards”. This set of cards was made up of three suits known as coins, strings and myriads. The aim of the game was for the players to get rid of all their cards by melding them into certain sequences. The common meldings were known as “gibbons” (a sequence of three cards from one suit) and “Leopards” (three cards of the same number). Alternatively, players could hold onto their cards to create a special melding, for instance, a “Pangolin” (7 coins, 3 strings, 3 myriads) or “Tiger” (9 coins, 1 string, 1 myriad). Each melding was worth a certain amount of points and the player with the highest score at the end of the game was the winner.

Money-suited cards were only one form of playing cards to develop from the “leaf” game in China. Another type was Mahjong cards with which similar games to the tiled version of Mahjong could be played. The cards contained Chinese characters or suits representing circles, bamboos, characters, dragons, winds, flowers and seasons. Often an illustration was included with the Chinese characters to emphasise their meaning, however, others featured characters from popular stories, such as The Story of the Water Margin. This is not dissimilar from the novelty packs of cards sold in the western world today. Another type of playing card was the Domino card with pips (dots) representing numbers. These cards could also be embellished with cultural illustrations.

When the Chinese travelled abroad, they often took playing cards with them, either as a form of entertainment or something with which to trade. As a result, playing cards were introduced to people from other countries who began to print their own versions. In Persia, for example, a 48-pack of cards was developed, containing four suits made up of ten pip (number) cards and two court cards (king and vizier).

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Mamluk playing cards

By the 12th century, playing cards had been introduced to most countries in Asia and had just worked their way into Africa, in particular Egypt. In fact, the oldest surviving playing cards were produced in Egypt. The majority of surviving cards from Africa, however, were made during the 15th century.

Initially, Egypt copied the Asian style of playing cards but, during the Mamluk Sultanate period (1250-1517), they began to develop their own designs and games. Known as Mamluk cards, they contained colourful abstract designs and calligraphy, however, unlike Chinese playing cards, they never visually represented people. This is because Sunni Islam, which was the prevalent religion in Egypt, advocated Aniconism: the avoidance of images of sentient beings.

There were typically 52 cards in a Mamluk pack, ten pip cards and three court cards. Although the court cards could not visually depict a person, they could bear the names of ranks: king, viceroy and seconder. It is not certain what games were played with these cards, however, they were probably based on Chinese and Asian rules.

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Knave of Coins from the oldest known European deck (c. 1390–1410).

Playing cards reached Europe around the 14th century and were first described in writing by Johannes of Rheinfelden, a German Dominican friar also known as John of Basle (b.1340). Playing cards had evidently been in Europe long before he wrote his treatise in 1377, which was a response to the decision in Florence to ban card games. Johannes began by describing the cards then went on to say he believed they could be used as a means of understanding the world, in particular how social standings worked in court and how this could be applied to social orders throughout the rest of humanity. Despite his writings, bans continued to be enforced across Europe and playing cards were denounced in churches as forms of gambling.

Nonetheless, playing cards continued to be designed and printed. The first European versions are believed to have been created in Italy, which were divided into four suits: swords, clubs, cups, and coins; these are still used in Italy and Spain today. In Italy, court cards within these “Latin suits” were a king, queen and knave/servant, although the latter may have been a prince. In Spain, on the other hand, the court cards became a king, knight and knave. Whereas the Italian version had ten pip cards, the Spanish only had nine and, in some games, they only used numbers one to seven.

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Italian Cards

When playing cards were first produced in Italy, they were only intended for the upper classes. Each card was hand-painted, making them an expensive, luxury item. As their popularity grew, however, card makers sought methods of producing them quickly and cheaply. As a result, playing cards began to spread across the rest of Europe.

Between 1418-1450, professional card makers set up woodcut factories in the Germany cities of Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg. Although the woodcut process printed the designs onto the cards, the colours were added later by hand, therefore, these 15th-century cards were mostly handpainted. To establish themselves as card manufacturers of Germany, the designers changed the Latin suits to reflect the rural lifestyle of the country. These new suits were acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. The court cards were changed to a king and two knaves: Obermann and Untermann. The pip cards, however, only numbered two to nine as they did away with the ace.

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German Cards

Although the new suits became the norm in Germany, some factories produced novelty version to appeal to people of particular professions and interests, for instance, animals and kitchen appliances. In Switzerland, they adopted the Germanic suits but tended to use flowers rather than leaves and a shield rather than hearts.

Germany was one of the key countries involved with developing printing techniques, which helped them to produce larger quantities of playing cards. Soon, they became more famed for the playing card trade than Italy. Subsequently, German suits became more dominant throughout Europe than the Latin versions.

In France, the Germanic suits were altered to clovers, hearts, pikes and tiles, which led to the development of the modern suits – clovers being clubs, pikes being spades and tiles being diamonds. Not only this, but the French also simplified the designs to make them quicker to print and divided the four suits into two colours: black and red. They also simplified the images on the court cards, reintroducing the queen and the ace to the pack. This meant stencils could be produced and used multiple times in printing presses, such as the Guttenburg press that was developed in 1440.

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French Cards

French playing cards quickly surpassed Germany in popularity and spread across Europe, thus familiarising the continent with a design similar to the cards used today. In the 16th century, the French also drew attention to the court cards by naming them after people from the Bible and popular works of literature. The kings became known as King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds), consequently representing the four major empires up to that date: Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans. The queens were designated Greek goddess Pallas Athena (Spades), Judith (Hearts), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Diamonds), and Argine (Clubs). It is not certain who the latter is but Argine may be the French name for Argea, wife of Polybus and mother of Argus.

The knaves were assigned the names of La Hire (Hearts), Charlemagne’s knight Ogier (Spades), Hector the hero of Troy (Diamonds), and King Arthur’s knight Lancelot (Clubs). Hector and Lancelot are the more famous of the set, whereas, La Hire and Ogier were only celebrated in France. La Hire was the nickname of Étienne de Vignolles (1390-1443), a French commander during the Hundred Years’ War. Ogier the Dane was a legendary knight of Charlemagne (748-814) who featured in many medieval French stories.

France was made up of nine regions and the appearance of the kings, queens and knaves differed slightly from place to place. It was not until playing cards became popular in Britain that a common design was developed.

It is not certain when playing cards arrived in Britain but it is likely they came via Belgium, where many French people had fled to avoid heavy taxes. Without having been influenced by Latin or Germanic playing cards, the English were happy to use the French designs, although they renamed the suits clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds.

The biggest difference between French and British cards was the Ace of Spaces. This card tends to have some form of design, signature or marking to make it appear more important than the other aces. There was, however, no difference in value. This tradition began sometime after 1588 when the English government placed a tax on playing cards. To indicate they had been taxed, the manufacturers were required to sign or stamp the Ace of Spades, which was usually the top card in a brand new pack.

To avoid paying tax, some people began to forge signatures, which led the government to enforce more drastic measures. From 1828, the Ace of Spades had to be purchased from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties. The card had to be stamped with the manufacturer’s name and the amount they had paid. Initially, manufacturers had no say in the appearance of the Ace of Spades, however, after 1862 they were allowed to design their own ace to complement their signature. Although this tax law no longer applies, playing card manufacturers have stuck to tradition, giving the Ace of Spaces more attention than the other cards.

The court cards, which feature detailed illustrations of bearded kings, flower-holding queens and clean-shaven knaves, began to become less elaborate as manufacturers sought to find a way to produce playing cards quickly and cheaply. Thomas de la Rue (1793-1866), a printer from Guernsey, was the first to drastically reduce the prices of playing cards and increase productivity.

Thomas de la Rue moved to London in 1818 to set up a shop, initially for straw hat-making, but soon expanded to include bookbinding and paper manufacturing. By 1828, De la Rue had become interested in playing cards and used all his skills, including letter-press printing, to modernise the designs. In 1831, De la Rue was granted a patent for his improvement and has since been regarded as the inventor of the modern English playing card.

The early version of De la Rue’s court cards, which were produced using the letterpress, were still highly detailed full-length figures, however, he had used a limited palette of red, yellow, blue and black. A second attempt at modernisation resulted in a flatter, two-dimensional design and, in the 1840s, he combined both styles together to produce an intricate design, opting to use blue ink for the outlines rather than black.

“The whole of Messrs De la Rue’s establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business.” (Bradshaw’s, 1842) De la Rue’s modern designs were made possible by developments in technology. Not only was hand-painting the cards time-consuming, but the ink also took a long time to dry. So, De la Rue found a quicker drying ink and glazed the cards to prevent them from losing their pigment. Wherever he could, he replaced jobs that were originally done by hand with steam-powered machines, which sped up the manufacturing process.

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Card Backs designed by Owen Jones

In 1844, De la Rue hired Owen Jones (1809-74), a Welsh graphic designer who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools. Jones’s task was to produce designs for the backs of playing cards and, in the two decades he spent with the company, it is estimated he made 173 different designs. Jones was influenced by foreign cultures and many of his designs were similar to Moorish, Chinese and other art styles from antiquity. Fruit and flowers were a typical feature in the designs.

Owen Jones’s playing cards were much sought by the upper classes, including the Royal Family. Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive. Nonetheless, sales continued to do well and Jones received a lot of praise for his work, including from the Victorian author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). It is also said the Arts and Crafts artist, William Morris (1834-96), was influenced by Jones’s work.

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De la Rue, 1860

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De la Rue, 1885

Around the 1860s, double-ended court cards were designed so that they would always be the right way up. Previously, serious card players could work out if their opponent had a court card by watching to see if they turned a card around when adding it to their hand. The court cards now had two heads and joined together in the middle where their legs once began.

Another alteration was the inclusion of indices (a number or letter indicating the value of the card), in the top corner of the card. This allowed players to easily see which cards they had by fanning them out in one hand. The corners of the cards, which were originally sharp, were rounded off to limit wear and tear. A ripped corner could make it harder for players to tell what cards they had in their hand or even reveal the value to their opponents. The design on the back of the cards was another way of preventing other players from seeing what cards their opponents had; wear and tear caused cards to thin, revealing the design through the paper.

Playing cards eventually reached the Americas through European exports and quickly became a commercial success. Lewis I. Cohen (1800-68), who had spent some time in England between 1814 and 1819, returned to America with fresh insight into technological developments. As a result, he became the first American to introduce lead pencils and steel pens, which replaced the out-dated quill pens. He also became a manufacturer of playing card printing, developing a colour-printing machine that was able to print more than one colour at a time, thus speeding up production.

When playing cards became popular in the USA, they were already in the final stages of the design that would become commonplace across the world. It was in the USA, however, that one final card was added to the pack: the Joker. Samuel Hart (1846-1871), a playing card manufacturer from Philadelphia, is credited with the invention of the Joker, which was initially called “Best Bower” or “Imperial Bower”. The name came from the German word Bauer, which is what they called the Jack in Germany. (Knaves had become known as Jacks to make it easier to differentiate them from the Kings.) Jacks were often used as the highest trump cards in many games, including a trick-taking game called Euchre. Hart’s idea was to make an even higher trump card.

Around the late 1860s, the Imperial Bower was renamed the Joker, which is believed to have come from Juckerspiel, the German name for the game of Euchre. In Britain, the USA was still one of its biggest exports, so card manufacturing company Chas Goodall and Son began adding jokers to the packs produced for the American market. Eventually, the idea caught on in Britain and the first Joker for the British market was sold in 1874. The Joker also spread to mainland Europe where, in Italy, it became known as the “Jolly”.

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Unlike the rest of the playing cards, a uniform design was never developed for the Joker, therefore, companies could be as creative as they wished. For some manufacturers, the Joker became their trademark, however, they are usually depicted as jesters. It is common nowadays to have two jokers in a pack, often one coloured and one black and white. This was so there could be a trump card for the red suits (hearts and diamonds) and the black suits (clubs and spades). Usually, the two Jokers are different in appearance as well as colour to differentiate between them. The United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), established in 1867, prints their guarantee on one of the joker cards as a way of telling them apart.

The Joker has been introduced to many card games as the trump card, although, in Britain, older rules tend to be followed and the Joker discarded. For instance, in Britain, it is more common to play Old Maid rather than Chase the Joker.

Over time, nicknames have been invented for certain cards. The court cards (King, Queen and Jack) are also known as face cards but some of these cards have earnt other names due to their visual appearance. The King of Hearts and King of Diamonds, for instance, are sometimes known as the Suicide Kings. This is because the King of Hearts holds a sword to the back of his head as though stabbing himself. The King of Diamonds does a similar action with an axe.

The Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Spades and the King of Diamonds have been referred to as the One-Eyed Royals because they are traditionally drawn in profile rather than face on. The rest of the court cards are drawn in such a way that both eyes can be seen. The Jack of Diamonds is sometimes known as the Laughing Boy but this may be due to previous illustrations rather than the traditional British design.

The Queen of Spades, often known as “the black lady” or “black Maria”, is the undesirable card in the game of Old Maid. She is shown holding a sceptre, which has led to the nickname “the bedpost Queen”. The Queen of Clubs was, at one point, the only Queen holding a flower, therefore, she became known as the “Flower Queen”. Today, however, all four Queens are usually depicted holding flowers.

The Ace of Spades, with its unique design, is often designated the trump card in certain games. As a result, it has earned the nickname “the death card”. Most of the pip cards are known by the numbers, however, on occasion, the twos have been referred to as “deuces” and the threes as “treys”. The Nine of Diamonds, on the other hand, has become known as “the Curse of Scotland” but no one agrees on the reason why. One suggestion was every ninth king of Scotland was “a tyrant and a curse to that country”, and another suggestion was nine diamonds were stolen from the crown jewels during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), which resulted in the whole country being taxed to recoup the costs.

New theories, names and meanings of playing cards have continued to be invented over the years. At one time, the four suits were said to represent the four major pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages: Church (Hearts), military (Spades), agriculture (Clubs), and merchants (Diamonds). Since then, the suits have also been assigned the four seasons, the four solstices and the four natural elements: water (Hearts), fire (Clubs), earth (Diamonds), and air (Spades).

There are 52 cards in a traditional pack of cards (discounting the jokers), which is the same number of weeks in a year. There are 13 cards in each suit and 13 weeks in each season and there are 12 Royals and 12 months of the year.

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The history of playing cards is long and varied and will likely endure forever. Over time, novelty versions of the cards have been produced, such as those featuring images from popular literature, to appeal to new generations. Playing cards have also been redesigned for coronations and special events and sold as limited editions.

Despite cultural differences, playing cards are something most countries have in common. Across Europe and America in particular, language barriers can be overcome through the playing of a well-known game. Even with the development of digital technology, playing cards are not at risk of being forgotten. Digital versions of solitaire are proving to be popular amongst all generations and casinos across the world continue to make lots of money from a simple pack of cards.

It is impossible to determine how many card games have been invented or how many styles of playing cards have been produced, but what we do know is they have all derived from games played in China during the 9th century. Who knew something so simple as a few strips of paper could grow to affect the whole world?

British Baroque

Throughout history, there have been many art movements. Baroque, for instance, flourished in Europe from the early 17th century until the 1740s. It began after the Renaissance and Mannerist periods and was followed by Rococo and Neoclassical styles, such as the Georgian Period in Britain. This year, Tate Britain is exploring how the Baroque style influenced architecture, painting, sculpture and other arts in a major exhibition British Baroque: Power and Illusion. The Baroque style can be recognised by deep colours, grandeur, a sense of movement, contrast and elements of surprise.

The Baroque style was introduced to Britain after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and lasted until the death of Queen Anne in 1714, encompassing the reigns of the last Stuart monarchs.

Between the death of Charles I in 1649 and the return of his son Charles II (1630-85) in 1660, the country had suffered under the “protection” of puritanical Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). The Church of England had been changed beyond recognition, royal and Church estates had been sold and castles had been destroyed. After Charles’ coronation, the Church of England was restored and attempts were made to reconstruct the pre-revolutionary regime. Whilst this was successful, Charles also brought changes too, most particularly the Baroque style.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Baroque art first developed, however, it had already been introduced to Britain before Charles II’s reign, mostly in architecture. Charles, however, was inspired by his cousin Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France, who was famed for the splendour of his court. Taking a leaf out of the Sun King’s book, Charles introduced hedonism and self-indulgence in place of moral purity.

“That star that at your birth shone out so bright,
It stain’d the duller sin’s meridian light,
Did once again its potent fires renew,
Guiding our eyes to find and worship you.

-John Dryden, Astraea Redux
A poem on the Happy Restoration & Return of His Sacred Majesty Charles the Second, 1660

The relief of the public about the restoration of the monarchy was clear from the number of people that flocked to watch Charles II arrive at Whitehall Palace – an event that took two hours due to the crowd. The joy was expressed through poets, such as John Dryden (1631-1700), who likened Charles to mythological gods and Roman emperors. People believed the restoration of the British monarchy to be a God-given event and Charles’ coronation was bedecked in bright colours to celebrate the return of peace and prosperity.

The lavish decoration did not end there. In order to re-establish the royal court as the centre of power, Charles ordered splendour to be lavished upon all buildings belonging to the court. Palaces were not only restored but embellished and decorated to express their magnificence and importance. In Charles’ bedchamber at Whitehall Palace, John Michael Wright (1617-94) painted Astraea Returns to Earth on the ceiling to represent the King’s return to power. According to the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC), Astraea was the Greek goddess of Justice, whose return to Earth signified a new golden age. Likening Charles II to Astraea illustrated the hope for a better future.

Ceiling paintings were produced for the State Apartments as well as the more public rooms of many of the buildings belonging to the court. Many of them featured portraits of the King, such as the ceiling in the Withdrawing Room at Windsor Castle, of which only a fragment survives. Plans for the ceiling of St George’s Hall at the castle reveal Charles was depicted in the sky among important figures, including Jesus Christ.

Comparing Charles to god-like figures continued throughout his reign, such as in the complex painting The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (1639-1707). Whilst still celebrating the Restoration, the date of the painting suggests it was also in celebration of the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, which Charles ended with the signing of the 1674 Treaty of Westminster. Charles is depicted as Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, surrounded by cherubs holding symbols of peace. In the background, the Royal Fleet floats on the calm waters, emphasising they are no longer at war.

Charles II’s official state portraits are just as flamboyant as the allegorical ones. Whilst he poses in similar manners to his father, the colour of the clothing is highlighted, drawing attention to what he is wearing, for instance, the robes of the Order of the Garter. Baroque fashion was very different from types of garments previous kings and queens wore. Gone were the high-necked dresses from the Tudor period and the colours of male clothing almost appear clownish in contrast to the fashions of today.

Peter Lely (1618-80) was the King’s Principal Painter and was much sought after by other members of the court. He was commissioned to produced portraits of “court beauties” dressed in expensive silk to demonstrate the success and wealth of the Restoration Court. At the time, marriages were often arranged to bring together powerful families, thus making the court even stronger. Despite a formal marriage ceremony, the lack of love between the couples led to courtiers conducting affairs with other women.

The king was no stranger to having a mistress and had several affairs despite being married to Catherine of Braganza. Barbara Villiers, Countess of Cleveland (1640-1709) was the principal mistress of Charles II during the 1660s. She was a powerful figure in court and some jokingly referred to her as “The Uncrowned Queen”. She had five children with Charles, all of whom he acknowledged, however, since they were illegitimate, they could not be heirs to the throne. Her portrait was requested from Peter Lely by Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland (1641-1702) in an attempt to gain her favour.

The King’s sister-in-law Anne Hyde, Duchess of York (1637-71) was one of Lely’s best patrons. Married to the Duke of York and future James II (1633-1701), Anne held a high position in court, although was not very well-liked. Her father, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-74), commissioned Lely to paint her portrait in celebration of her marriage to James. Dressed in colourful silks, Anne sits with her hand under a jet of water, which symbolised purity and fertility. Unfortunately, despite having eight children, only two survived infancy, the future queens Mary II (1662-94) and Anne (1665-1714).

Anne Hyde commissioned Lely to paint a group of portraits known as the Windsor Beauties to be displayed together as an example of the ideal female beauty promoted at court. One example Tate Britain displays is a portrait of Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Gramont. Elizabeth was born in Ireland but was brought up in France. After the Restoration, she came to England and became a member of the court at Whitehall where she was nicknamed “la belle Hamilton”. The Windsor Beauties were not merely portraits but contained many symbols and hidden meanings, for instance, Elizabeth was depicted as St Catherine, the “bride of Christ.” This reflected her newly married status to Philibert, Count of Gramont (1621-1707). A few years after the portrait was completed, she and her husband moved to France where she was a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Maria Theresa (1638-83).

Peter Lely was not the only prestigious painter during the reign of Charles II. His brother the Duke of York had his portrait painted by Henri Gascar (1635-1701) in the French court style. The future king is shown as Lord High Admiral but mimicking the costume of Mars, the Roman god of war. The cloak, sash and sandals are painted in ornate detail typical of the Baroque period. James, however, may not have been able to display this painting for long because he had converted to Catholicism and new legislation prevented Catholics from holding public positions, therefore, he had to renounce his position as Lord High Admiral.

Jacob Huysmans (1630-96) was the preferred painter of the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. Although she was married to the protestant Charles II, she was allowed to remain a Catholic. She had her own separate household and court, which was less flamboyant than her husband’s, however, still grand and elaborate. The Flemish painter Huysmans was also a Catholic, which may have been the reason for Catherine’s patronage. Huysmans painted Catherine shortly after her marriage to Charles in 1662. He depicted her as a shepherdess surrounded by lambs, ducklings and cherubs, all of which were symbols of love, innocence and fertility. Although the court hoped Catherine would produce an heir, her pregnancies all ended in miscarriage.

Charles, however, managed to have at least twelve (illegitimate) children with his various mistresses, but none of them were entitled to the throne. His eldest child James (1649-85) tried to challenge his uncle to the throne but failed and was beheaded for treason. Despite being illegitimate, all Charles’ children were granted a title by the royal court, for example, Charles Fitzroy (1662-1730), the 2nd Duke of Cleveland who was painted as a child with his mother Barbara Villiers. Charles Fitzroy was also styled as Baron Limerick and the Earl and Duke of Southampton.

The portrait of Charles Fitzroy and his mother was commissioned by Barbara to promote her power. The pair were depicted by Lely as the Virgin and Christ but was far from a religious painting. Christ is the son of God and Charles was the son of the King, thus implying Charles II was a powerful man.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, so was the Church of England. During the Commonwealth, the Puritans had targetted art in churches, removing images they deemed inappropriate for their style of worship. Whilst there was a desperate need to restore the churches and cathedrals, there was widespread debate about the use of artwork. Some thought elaborate decoration was suitable for a religious setting, whereas, others argued it would distract from the worship of God.

It tended to be the Catholics that embraced art and lavishly decorated their buildings. Although Charles II was Protestant, his wife’s catholicism meant he was more lenient than past monarchs on those who did not conform to the Church of England. Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena (1658-1718), James II’s second wife, were permitted the freedom to worship in Catholic chapels at St James’s Palace and Somerset House. Unfortunately, the alleged Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles in the 1678 Popish Plot caused anti-Catholic hostility across the country.

When the Catholic James II became king in 1685, the country remained officially Protestant, however, James began restoring Catholic places of worship. James ordered paintings for his newly opened chapels, such as the one at Whitehall Palace that opened on Christmas Day in 1686. The chapel contained a 12-metre high marble altarpiece containing a painting of The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1633-1715). The angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary to tell her she will be the mother of the Son of God is a deeply religious subject in Catholic art, however, someone of Protestant faith would have been more likely to hang the painting in an art gallery.

The Whitehall Palace chapel altarpiece was built by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) and Arnold Quellin (1653-86) on the instruction of James II. It took a total of five months and 50 craftspeople to complete the task and two surviving marble panels reveal the Baroque style of stonemasonry. Putti holding a crown and the coats of arms of Scotland and Ireland indicated it was both a Catholic and royal establishment. The Chapel, however, was short-lived since it was closed when the Protestants William (1650-1701) and Mary (1662-94) came to the throne.

Tate Britain briefly paused their chronological timeline to take a look at some of the fashionable paintings aside from portraits and religious iconography. Trompe l’oeil paintings were particularly popular during the late Stuart period. The paintings tricked the eye into believing what they saw was real and three-dimensional. Charles II had a collection of this type of artwork as did his successors. Trompe L’Oeil of a Violin and Bow Hanging on a Door (after 1674) is a prime example of the style. The artist, Jan van der Vaart (1647-1721) was primarily a portrait and landscape painter, however, he was also known for his depiction of violins. Realistically painted on canvas, the violin image was mounted on a wooden door through which a peg protrudes to make it appear the violin is hanging from it.

Another Dutch painter, Edward Collier (active 1662-1708) was also skilled in trompe l’oeil paintings. His favourite subjects to paint were newspapers, written notes, writing implements and wax seals. Using a single canvas, Collier painted these objects on top of a painted wooden background to make them appear as though they were all positioned in a letter rack on a wall. The details on the newspaper are so fine that they appear they have been printed rather than written by hand. Rather than signing the painting in the corner, Collier addressed the letter in the painting to a “Mr E. Collier, Painter at London”.

Hyper-realistic paintings of flowers were also all the rage during the Stuart period. Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten, who came to London in 1662, was interested in both art and science and joined the Royal Society, a society that promoted scientific experimentation and the study of the natural world. Combining both his passions, van Hoogstraten painted “perfect mirrors” of nature, making his paintings of flowers appear tangible, as though viewers could reach out and touch them. Inspired by this, other artists began replicating the style, such as Simon Verelst (1644-1717) who came to London from the Netherlands in 1669. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), the famous diarist, recalled seeing Verelst’s painting of a vase of flowers and admitted he had to check over and over again that what he was seeing was a painting and not a real plant.

Architecture was significantly influenced by the Baroque style and was particularly associated with Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Surveyor-General of the King’s Works. As well as being an architect, Wren was also an anatomist, astronomer, geometer, and mathematician-physicist, however, the latter two also impacted his designs. Wren was also familiar with classical architecture and had insight into Louis XIV’s building projects in Paris. Due to this, Wren was able to produce designs for buildings that expressed the magnificence, beauty and strength of the nation.

Wren was responsible for many of the great buildings built in the late Stuart era, including Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital. His most famous achievement, however, was the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral following the Great Fire of London. Large columns, porticos, ornaments and domes were typical features of Baroque buildings and were befitting of the royal courts who commissioned them.

In 1709, Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) won a competition to paint the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral but the painting was delayed because ministers could not agree on what type of paintings would be most appropriate. Being an Anglican church, they wanted to avoid the flamboyancy of Catholic decoration but simultaneously did not want anything too bland. Finally, it was agreed the paintings would illustrate eight episodes of St Paul’s life, for instance, the burning of the books at Ephesus and appearing before Agrippa. Rather than using the typical bright colours associated with Catholicism, Thornhill worked in monochrome, allowing the paintings to enhance the “grandeur and modesty” of the building.

Later, Thornhill was invited to decorate the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital, which is considered to be the most spectacular painted interior of the Stuart era. Interior paintings and murals were an important feature of Stuart buildings, particularly in palaces and country houses. The paintings demonstrated the wealth of the owners whose notability was expressed through allegorical subjects from ancient history and classical mythology.

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View of Chatsworth – Jan Siberechts

Country houses were also a way of demonstrating the wealth of the aristocracy. Inspired by Wren’s buildings, architects, such as William Talman (1650–1719), Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) and John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), designed grand luxuriant buildings set in Anglo-French style gardens. Chatsworth House, for example, commissioned by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire (1640-1704), rivalled royal residences. Designed by Talman, the house had a palatial feel, which was enhanced by the fountains and statues in the gardens.

The Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690 in Ireland saw the victory of William III over James II. William, the son of Prince William II of Orange (1626-50) was James’s nephew and the husband of his cousin Mary. James was unpopular with Protestant Britain who feared a revival of Catholicism, so William invaded England in what became known as the Glorious Revolution and deposed his uncle. Under normal circumstances, the crown would have fallen to the eldest son of James II and Mary of Modena, however, the heir apparent was also Catholic. It had been declared all Catholics were now excluded from the throne. So, the crown fell to Mary and her husband William as joint sovereigns.

The Protestant royal court had many similarities with Charles II’s court, particularly where portraits were concerned. Beauty was considered to be a valuable quality for women and was often celebrated in poetry and painting. In 1690, Mary II commissioned a set of eight full-length portraits of the most beautiful women at her court. These were painted by Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) and hung in the Water Gallery at Hampton Court. Known as the Hampton Court Beauties, the women are dressed in expensive silks to compliment their appearance and express their nobility.

Among the Hampton Court Beauties were Diana de Vere (1679-1742), who went on to become Duchess of St Albans and Margaret Cecil (1672-1728), the daughter of the 3rd Earl of Salisbury. Hanging in the same room at Tate Britain is a portrait of Princess Anne, the future queen, however, her portrait was painted by Willem Wissing (1656-87) who had, unfortunately, passed away before Mary II commissioned the Hampton Court Beauties.

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The Royal Family were not the only people to commission portraits of “beauties”. For the mansion Petworth House, the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset commissioned a set of full-length portraits depicting the most beautiful women to represent their family and connections. Ranging from mid-teens to thirty, the Petworth Beauties were painted by the Swedish artist Michael Dahl (1659-1743) and hung with full-length mirrors between them, so that guests could compare their inferior appearance with the paintings.

Until recently, the Petworth Beauties were believed to be half-length portraits. This is because during the 1820s, the current owner of the house, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, decided to “cut off their legs” to create more hanging room for other paintings. In 1995, the National Trust discovered the paintings had not been cut but folded up behind the frame. Although damaged, restoration teams worked hard to save the legs and the paintings have been successfully restored. Tate Britain displays two of the Petworth Beauties, the Duchess of Ormonde and the Duchess of Devonshire, but unless told, any damage is unnoticeable.

Whilst female members of court represented beauty and innocence, the monarch represented authority and the might of the nation. For the majority of William and Mary’s reigns, Britain was at war, therefore, it is no surprise that paintings of William represent his war achievements. From 1688 until 1697, Britain, alongside the Dutch Republic, Holy Roman Empire Spain and Savoy, fought in the Nine Year’s War against Louis XIV. Following this, Britain was involved in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13).

Triumphant monarchs were always painted on horseback to symbolise their sovereignty, such as in Jan Wyck’s painting William III. Although war rages on behind him, William remains in control of his horse whilst holding a sceptre. In reality, William would have held a military baton and the sceptre was merely a symbolic element of the painting.

Jan Wyck painted another scene from the Nine Year’s War showing William III and his army at the Seige of Namur in 1695. This was one of William’s greatest victories and he can be seen on horseback amongst his officers. In the background, smoke from artillery fire obscures the view, implying the fighting is not yet over. Although William is made to appear superior and in charge, it also suggests he did not partake in the physical warfare.

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Queen Anne – Michael Dahl

Portraits of Queen Anne, the sister of childless Mary II, who came to the throne in 1702, were never used to represent military victory since she was female. Instead, the Queen represented peace. She also became associated with politics after Michael Dahl painted a full-length painting of Anne to be hung in the Bell Tavern where the Tory October Club held their meetings. Whether they had the support of Anne is unknown but the painting implied to others that they did. Dahl was the unofficial artist of Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, therefore, he may have been affiliated with the Tories.

Since 1689, the monarchy played less of a role in political life and the running of the nation was left to Parliament. The Whigs were in opposition to absolute monarchy, whereas the Tories identified with the traditions of the Stuart kings and queens.

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The Whig Junto – John James Baker

Political elections began to be held every three years, therefore, politics was a constant concern. Political clubs, such as the Whig Kit-Cat club were formed to be able to discuss politics and tactics away from the royal court and government. Members of the club were a mix of politicians, aristocrats and writers who were usually depicted as lively, happy people in their portraits, which was a stark contrast to the leaders of the Whigs who wanted to uphold social status. The “Whig Junto” as the leaders were known consisted of six men: the 3rd Earl of Sunderland, the 1st Marquess of Wharton, the 1st Baron Somers, the 1st Earl of Halifax, the 2nd Duke of Devonshire and the 1st Earl of Orford, who commissioned John James Baker (active 1685-1725) to paint them seated around a table at one of the country meeting houses. Despite the Roman military victory symbols in the painting, the Whigs soon lost power.

Although Queen Anne’s power was gradually diminishing, it was still worth gaining her favour. Despite political changes, people were still of the view that magnificent displays of power and status were important. Godfrey Kneller, who had been Principal Painter of Mary II, continued painting full-length images of courtiers and aristocrats. As time went on, however, politicians were added to the mix, such as the diplomat Matthew Prior (1664-1721).

Those with connections to the royal family also began to be seen as less important, such as Isabella Bennet, Duchess of Grafton (1668-1723) who Kneller painted with her son Charles FitzRoy (1683-1757). When she was only four years old, Isabella was married to Charles II’s illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy (1663-90). Isabella had been one of the Hampton Court Beauties but in this painting, she is older and widowed. The presence of her son gazing up at her was to try and remind people of her royal connections.

One of the final paintings in the exhibition is of Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744) and Viscountess Fitzharding (1654-1708) playing a game of cards. Sarah was once a favourite of Queen Anne but after Sarah and Fitzharding developed a close friendship, the Queen was said to be full of rage and jealousy. Perhaps this was a sign that having a connection with the monarchy was becoming less important?

Tate Britain successfully takes visitors on a journey from the beginning of British Baroque to its final stages. Comparing the paintings in the final rooms with the bright, colourful ones in the first reveals that by the 1700s, Baroque style was on its way out, making room for the Georgian period. Nonetheless, evidence of the Baroque era remains today in buildings, such as St Paul’s, and hundreds of paintings. Subsequently, the artworks reveal the lives of those involved with the Stuart monarchy and how they used art to convey power or at least imply it through illusions. With many works on public display for the first time, British Baroque: Power and Illusion is worth visiting to explore an overlooked era of art history.

British Baroque: Power and Illusion is open until 19th April 2020. Tickets are £16 for adults, £5 for under 18s and free for under 12s. Tate Britain warns that some paintings show aspects of slavery and may be upsetting for some people.