Early European card makers had a cast of 12 characters to depict. Their tools were crude ones and their ‘canvas’ small; the prints of the cards were taken from woodblocks cut in relief and then hand-coloured or coloured via stencils. The woodblocks used were cut from planks (i.e. with the grain of the wood) and could not use the very fine lines that wood engraving did later (being made from woodblocks cut across the grain of the wood). The 12 courts of the French designs are all shown standing; their designers did the best they could by making each of them strike different poses (some head-on, some looking to one side, and some looking back with their head over their shoulder) and wear different costumes and carry different objects. It was important to the game-player that he could tell at a glance exactly which court he was looking at.

The English design

The English (i.e. International) pattern derives originally from designs produced in Rouen (in France) before 1516. These show entirely credible and well-executed pictures of elegant persons wearing the typical elaborate court costumes of the period. In fact, the jack of spades and the king of diamonds are depicted as seen from the rear, with their heads turned back over the shoulder so that they are seen in profile. The same was also true of the jack of hearts. These designs, like others, were soon disfigured by uninformed and unskilled copying by block makers, particularly by incompetent English artisans, who produced the grotesque distortions from which our modern cards are ultimately descended.

The design distorted by bad copying

Only pictures can really show how the distortion of the designs took effect over time. You should now click on this link to display each of the courts over time in a separate window, while refering to the description below.

Note the following peculiarities:

Further examples of early English playing-cards can be seen at the World of Cards website.

Updating the design during the 1800s

Many changes happened to the English design during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century: