Characters from Famous Plays Illustrated in a Handmade Deck of Cards ca. 1790

Strange things are shelved in the Cotsen manuscripts section.  It’s unclear what  exactly they are, why they were made, and who made them.   When the object has no obvious clues that might set off a chase, some of their secrets will always be impenetrable.  Others can be cracked with some research, like this set of illustrated cards drawn on the blanks of a standard set of playing cards. Most of them have a tab on the back so they can be stood up on a flat surface, suggesting that they are not intended to be dealt out to players of a game.  The primitive style of the artwork and awkward printing of the captions look like the work of a child.Two of the cards conveniently date them between 1760 and 1820, the reign of King George III.  Here he is, with his consort Charlotte.  They seem to be the only portraits of real people.Whoever made them was familiar with the cast list of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, pt. 1 because Falstaff’s gang is well represented.  The child maker also seems to have known other plays. To the right of plump Jack Falstaff is Sergeant Kite, a character in George Farquahar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer, which opened in Drury Lane in 1706 and was one of the most popular plays of the 1700s.  It opens with Sergeant Kite haranguing the crowd, trying to sign up recruits for the army:

If any gentlemen soldiers, or others, have a mind to serve Her Majesty, and pull down the French king; if any prentices have severe masters, any children have unnatural parents; if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife; let them repair to the noble Sergeant Kite, at the Sign of the Raven, in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.

These two cards represent the hero and one of the rivals for his affections from the stage or reading versions of Henry Fielding’s updated adventures of Tom Thumb, incredibly popular The Tragedy of Tragedies, or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb (1731). Fielding’s satire on the abuses of language on the contemporary stage was probably of less interest to the card maker than the running joke about the impossibility of congress between the little fellow and his gigantic panting lady loves.

The presence of certain other characters is much less unexpected.  “Mother Midnight,” supposedly the midwife behind the magazine The Midwife (1751) was one of poet Christopher Smart’s alter egos.  In the satirical review Mother Midnight’s Oratory, he played her in drag, as well as singing, dancing, and collaborating on writing the buffoonery.  The famous comedian Samuel Foote was also involved and the drag role of Lady Pentweazel in his play Taste turns up in the deck.

King Arthur and Merlin make appearances.  As tempting as it is to jump to the conclusion the child was immersed in Arthurian legends, given all the characters from plays in the card set, it may be just as likely that the drawings were inspired by  John Dryden’s libretto for Henry Purcell’s opera 1691 opera King Arthur with a libretto by John Dryden, which had been revived  in different revised versionsin 1736, 1763, 1770, and 1784.The child’s imagination was so engaged with the popular culture of the day that it makes me wonder if the card maker was stage-struck or was a member of a play-going family.  Until the identities of the characters drawn are untangled, it’s easy to dismiss the deck of cards as a curiosity or an amusing example of children’s artwork and fail to recognize it can also serve as a window into the mentalities of late eighteenth century childhood.