I have been working now for quite a while on my mark III playing cards. Thinking carefully about paper and historic colours. Gradually I came to feel that this effort would be wasted unless I created a new block to print from.
The first block of playing card courts that I made was a long time ago. Although there was no complete English playing card pack extant from the early 17th century, I knew that the right pattern to use originated in the French town of Rouen. I got a bit of pearwood, and created the block from a pattern I found. It looked OK. Then I found out that there were two Rouen patterns and I’d done the wrong one.
The second block of playing card courts that I made was from the right pattern, but I couldn’t get any pearwood that time. I heard that applewood was nearly as good so I used a piece of that. I found carving quite a struggle though; when carving against the grain, the wood had a nasty tendency to crumble. And I had a few slips. The King of Hearts has no nose. But, the block was good enough at that time for me to present the process in displays. I tidied it up a few times and got the prints looking cleaner, but the carvings always seemed a bit clumsy somehow.
What I have learned over time is that pearwood is considerably easier to work than applewood. I also now have woodcarving tools that are more reliable than tools marketed to printmakers, which I think are fine for lino but no good for wood. I have had a lot more practice on working blocks and appreciate the importance of carving deeply into white space.
So I was ready to create my third block. Whilst reading the journal of the International Playing Card Society, I came across some articles by Ken Lodge whose breadth of knowledge in the history of English cards is impressive. He had discovered, during his researches, an extant English King of Hearts in Norwich, and a Knave of Spades in Haddon Hall, Derbyshire. This primary evidence was something I had to use and I incorporated these slightly different designs into the block, which otherwise sticks to the Rouen standard.
At time of writing, I am just over halfway through carving the block. I have been checking on the faces once I’ve carved them, by doing a soft pencil rubbing on tracing paper. However, I cannot know how it will print until it is completely finished.
I’m looking forward to seeing the results. I know there will be many imperfections still but my hope is to produce a pack that would echo in a small way, the skills of those wood carvers in times past.