Update: Rare 17th century heraldic playing cards from Edinburgh

Monday 1 August 2011

Original post from 29 June 2011

Second engraved title card of St Andrews' copy of "Cards armorial, containing the coats of arms of the four kingdoms, and of the Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts and Lords of the Kingdom of Scotland".

We were contacted by members of the Scottish media shortly following an early post on this blog on a set of heraldic playing cards printed in Edinburgh in 1691. This post, and its subsequent Twitter and Facebook links, generated over 100 hits in its first few days and has continued to be one of the most popular items on this blog. Sue Gyford, a reporter at the Edinburgh Evening News, caught wind of the story and contacted our press office in hopes of publishing an article on the find. Her page 3 article was printed in the 30 June 2011 edition of the Evening News, and was also  posted online. This find was also published on the University’s news page on 01 July 2011, and then recycled in many local newspapers including The St Andrews Citizen, Deadline News, Think Scotland, The Herald and Metro.

This series of media coverage brought in some interesting queries, the most fruitful was from two members of the Fairmilehead Association, Louise Maguire and Carolyn Lincoln, who got in touch with us through Ms Gyford. They claimed to have seen two other copies of these cards in the National Library of Scotland (NLS), one of which had the name “James Hamilton” on a card our set did not have.  The only mention I could find of any possible match to St Andrews’ set of cards was in the Scottish Book Trade Index for James Hamilton which reads:

HAMILTON, James of Little Earnock paper maker Restalrig and Edinburgh
Restalrig [Clockmill] Mill 1690-93
[shop] on the South side of the head of the Canongate a little above St John’s Cross Edinburgh 1691
Bought from Peter Bruce his patent for playing cards and his papermill at Restalrig in 1690. The papermill was on the ‘River of Tumble’ and is perhaps the clockmill of Clockmill Lane. A clock mill is a watermill with a horizontal wheel used when a stream was too shallow to take a vertical wheel. Two sets of his ‘Cards armorial containing the Arms of the four Kingdoms’ are in the National Library of Scotland.

After finding this, I got in touch with our contacts at the NLS, Robert Betteridge and Anette Hagan, to confirm that these sets were indeed the same as ours. They came back with a positive confirmation; however, they had been part of the Rosebery Collection and had not been catalogued on-line. Following this line of queries, they provided a catalogue record as well, which can be found here. One of their sets did, indeed, include a wrapper/title card which provides us with our lost title and printer information as well as a card for the Lord Lyon King of Arms (Sir Alexander Erskine, 2nd Baronet of Cambo), a card which the St Andrews set lacks. Since this find, we have updated our catalogue record to reflect the true identity of this set.

(1) Recto of the title leaf from National Library of Scotland's copy of the 1691 heraldic playing cards at Ry.II.c.36. (2) Verso of the title leaf from National Library of Scotland's copy of the 1691 heraldic playing cards at Ry.II.c.36. (3) Detail of second title card and of the Lord Lyon King of Arms card from National Library of Scotland's copy of the 1691 heraldic playing cards at Ry.II.c.36. By permission of the Trustees of The National Library of Scotland.
A full set of the 1691 heraldic cards from the collection of a private owner.

This is generally where this exciting story would end; however, the Edinburgh Evening News did a follow-up article on this find in their 23 July 2011 edition. This article prompted a query from a reader of the Evening News who thought she had a matching set in her private collection. After sending along an image of the set (pictured right), we were able to confirm that this was indeed another set, and the first set that we’ve seen mounted as cards. The red suits in this set also appears to be press-coloured.


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7 thoughts on "Update: Rare 17th century heraldic playing cards from Edinburgh"

  • John Sings
    John Sings
    Monday 1 August 2011, 1.06pm

    I think that you find that one of the packs in the NLS were originally sold in a Christie's auction on the 24th November 1971 "Lot Number 328. 47 cards cut from a sheet of "The Arms of the Scottish Peers" pack made in Edinburgh in 1691 by Waiter Scot. ". I believe they sold for 18gns !! and became the property of an American couple who later sold them to an Edinburgh Dealer and from him [ some how ] to the NLS. John Sings Council Member Onternational Playing Card Society

  • Robert Betteridge
    Robert Betteridge
    Monday 1 August 2011, 2.22pm

    Neither of the sets at NLS could have come from a 1971 sale as they have been in the Library since 1927 as part of the Rosebery Collection. In addition each set has the complete 54 cards. Robert Betteridge National Library of Scotland

    • John Sings
      John Sings
      Monday 8 August 2011, 11.42am

      My apologies, I have spoken to my colleague and I regret I misheard him. It was the National Gallery that become the eventual home of this imperfect deck. On his repeating the whole episode I also realised that I misheard the price. So to set the record right it sold for 80gns. Old Age!!! John Sings Council member International Playing Card Society

      • St Andrews Special Collections
        St Andrews Special Collections
        Thursday 5 January 2012, 11.23am

        Dear Mr. Sings, I received a letter today from Mr. Leslie Hodgson who followed up the National Gallery line of enquiry. He found at the National Gallery "no reference to such a pack in its collections and no references to having obtained one ... Christie's did sell at auction on the said date a pack of playing cards as lot No. 328, but it was not heraldic in any form whatsoever". I've not been able to confirm this with anyone at the National Gallery, so far the known sets are at St Andrews, the National Library of Scotland, possibly Abbotsford and other private collections. -DG

  • Rare 17th century heraldic playing cards from Edinburgh | Echoes from the Vault
    Saturday 13 August 2011, 10.34am

    [...] see an update on these cards, view this post from 1 August [...]

    Friday 8 August 2014, 4.55pm

    This correspondence has only just come to my attention. Christies did sell an incomplete set of these cards , as lot no 330, in their sale on Wednesday 24th November 1971. The lot was entitled, "Scottish Heraldry ". 7 cards were in facsimile. The hammer price was indeed, £80. I attended the auction of this remarkable collection of Playing Cards, The Property of The late Captain H E Rimington Wilson, of Broomhead Hall, near Sheffield.

  • Roddy Somerville
    Roddy Somerville
    Sunday 24 January 2021, 8.07pm

    As a St Andrews graduate and playing-card enthusiast, I have followed this story with great interest over the years. In May 1981 I sold a set of these cards to the National Museum of Antiquities (now National Museums Scotland). The set (which came from a private collector in the south of England) lacked one card (represented by a photocopy) but had the two extra cards. Some years later I purchased a full set (in book form) for my own collection and this I still own. There is another set in the British Museum and a further, incomplete set (48/52 + 2 extra cards) in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards of the City of London housed at the London Metropolian Archives. In addition, I remember visiting a private residence in Edinburgh many years ago where there was a complete set mounted in one frame. Roddy Somerville Past Chairman of the International Playing-Card Society, Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards and Curator of the WCMPC Collection


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