The Famous J.G. Cotta Transformation Decks

Historical Importance

There’s an incredible variety of custom playing cards in today’s market. But of all the playing cards that I’ve seen over the years, there is one type of deck that remains a personal favourite: the transformation deck. The concept of these playing cards is simple to understand: the pips on the cards are cleverly incorporated into a larger picture. So an imaginative artist might transform the Heart pips into faces, the Diamond pips into hats, or the Club pips into paw prints.

Some wonderful transformation decks have been produced in recent years, but the concept is hardly new. They first started appearing in the 1800s, and especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century there was a real boom. Estimates suggest that at least 70 different transformation decks were produced in this period.

We can’t be certain about who first came up with the idea of turning playing cards into art in this way, and it’s not hard to imagine that many a creative artist might have doodled on a playing card for fun. There are several examples of small sets of cards decorated in this way, some of which date back to as early as 1801. These include a set of eight copper engraved cards by D.W. Soltan (artist) and D. Berger (engraver), which were illustrations for a German edition of the Samuel Butler book Hudibras, and depicted various scenes from this work. Three of these eight drawings were based on the Two of Hearts, so there was clearly no attempt to create a complete pack of cards.

Christoph Haller von Hallerstein also experimented with this art form in the following year, producing a set of one dozen engraved transformation cards. But these were also not intended for playing card games, given the limited number of cards. Around the same time illustrator Jan Rustem produced a number of sketches and drawings which also explored the transformation concept. As with von Hallerstein, this wasn’t an attempt to produce a complete deck either. Although it had 80 cards, many were duplicates of the same number/suit (e.g. ten cards used the Ace of Hearts), while many cards from a standard deck weren’t represented at all (e.g. only two cards from the entire Spades suit were included, and there were no court cards for any suit).

The first complete set of transformation cards is usually credited to John Nixon, a famous caricaturist who published a scrapbook with concept drawings and coloured images under the name Metastasis in 1803. This was a move closer to a complete deck, since all the cards were represented. However even then they were only pictures pasted individually on sheets of paper, and not a printed deck.

So the honour of the very first published and complete deck of transformation cards goes to Johann Freidrich Cotta, the man at the helm of publishing house J.G. Cotta (his grandfather) from Tübingen, Germany, around 1804. J.F. Cotta went on to produce a series of six playing card almanacs in successive years from 1805-1811, with a new deck appearing in all but one of those years. One exception was the 1810 pack, which wasn’t printed as playing cards, but was issued only as illustrations in a book. Let’s introduce you to these famous decks, which will be reproduced in fine new versions as part of a special project throughout the coming year 2020.

Overview

The idea behind the concept of Cotta’s transformation decks was to create a series of six decks on an annual basis from 1805-1811. Each deck would focus on a different theme, with the first set based on Schiller’s play Jeanne d’Arc, which was about the famous historical figure Joan of Arc. Forming a “Card Almanac” (Karten Almanach), each card in the deck would represent one of the 52 weeks in a calendar year. At the time it was popular to print almanacs, which were special pocket books for the new year, and often included a short poem or quote for each week of the calendar year. It was a logical move to connect each of these 52 weeks with a playing card. The almanac itself was a small booklet, which accompanied the playing cards.

Cotta’s original deck was designed by Countess Mary Day von Jennison-Walworth (sometimes spelled with a single `n’). Some accounts credit a different woman, Countess Charlotte von Jennison Walworth, who is harder to identify. But Mary Day von Jennison Walworth (1766-1851) appears to be the most likely candidate as the artist. Her maiden name was Beauclerk, and she was the wife of Count Francis Jennison Walworth (1764–1824). She was an illegitimate child who led a very colourful life, and finally settled down somewhat after marrying Count Francis in 1797.

Von Jennison-Walworth was also the artist for the decks in 1805, 1806, 1809, and 1811, while the artwork for the 1807 deck was by Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur, and the 1810 deck by C.F. Osiander. Lithography was used starting with the fourth deck, while the first three were all produced with copper plates that were manually engraved with stipple and etching.

Cotta did have the goal of replacing the “inelegant” designs of contemporary German playing cards with a more artistic high-quality deck. But these playing cards were not intended for playing games with in the first place, but rather for stimulating discussion about the “themed” images on each of the cards. Each year the court cards were designed to represent another theme, while the number cards featured pictures that were largely independent drawings without a common topic, since they were especially intended as conversation pieces. Bear in mind that alongside the cards there were companion books which served as almanacs and referred to the illustrations on the cards.

Cotta’s transformation cards were very successful and became a role model for later transformation decks from other publishers. As was the case with many playing cards from the time, since the card backs were blank, individual cards were sometimes used by the nobility as visit cards and for leaving messages, so these playing cards often became multi-purpose items.

The Six Decks

First almanac deck: Jeanne d’Arc (1805)

The very first transformation deck issued by Cotta is from 1805. This deck is probably the most famous of all six, and is incredibly scarce. The illustrations were done by hand, and the cards were printed on linen period stock that was 97 mm x 69 mm in size, with blank card backs and squared corners. Only the court cards were hand-colored with this deck, while the number cards used red stencils. The publisher’s name was placed on the Ace of Clubs as follows: “A Tubinge chez J. G. Cotta, Libraire“.

This deck is especially significant for the way it displays meaningful and inspirational happenings from the time, such as Schiller on his death-bed. The transformations on the number cards have no reference to each other or to the court cards, but the images on the court cards are characters inspired by Schiller’s play “Die Jungfrau von Orleans” (“Joan of Arc”). As with all the decks, the court cards were designated with the words “Valet”, “Dame”, and “Roi”, which are the French terms corresponding to the Jack, Queen, and King.

Pictured on the court cards (Jack, Queen, King) of this deck are:
● Clubs: Montgomery, Louison (Joan’s fictional sister), René d’Anjou (King of Sicily)
● Spades: Lionel (knight), Joan of Arc, Talbot
● Hearts: Etienne de Vignolles (La Hire), Isabeau de Baviere (Charles’ mother), Charles VII (King of France)
● Diamonds: Raimond (villager), Agnes Sorel (Charles’ mistress), Philippe de Bourgogne

The central figure of Joan of Arc is depicted as the Queen of Spades, the Maid of Orleans who inspired the French army to victory, but was later burned at the stake. Other individuals closely associated with Joan include Etienne de Vignolles or La Hire (Jack of Hearts), who helped Joan to victory in the battle of Patay in 1429; and Raymond (Jack of Diamonds), a peasant who was Joan’s page

Key political leaders who figured prominently in the events surrounding Joan’s life are also represented, including King Charles VII (King of Hearts), the French monarch who relied on Joan’s help to reach the Rhiems, the traditional place of coronation; Charles’ mother Isabeau (Queen of Hearts), who was in league with Charles’ enemy; Charles’ mistress Agnes Sorel (Queen of Diamonds); Charles’ opponent Philippe the Good (King of Diamonds), an ally of England; and the king of Naples, René d’Anjou (King of Clubs), who lost the kingdom after defeat in battle. General Talbot (King of Spades) was the English commander of the outpost of Orleans at Saint Loup, who was wounded in battle, captured, and was part of a prisoner exchange.

Both Joan’s “sister” Louison (Queen of Clubs) and Montgomery (Jack of Clubs) are fictional creations of Schiller, while the fictional Lionel (Jack of Spades) is the character who holds up Joan’s sword in a location revealed by the voices that she supposedly heard telling her to help.

Several replicas of this deck have been produced previously, including one by Editions Leipzig in 1971 (which includes a 118 page booklet), one printed in Hong Kong in 1973, and one by Editions Atlas in 2013.

Second almanac deck: Classical Antiquity (1806)

The second of the six card almanacs was issued 1806, following the remarkable success of the first almanac deck. This second almanac deck also aimed to have well known court cards, and featured figures from classical antiquity, taken from sources such as Greek and Roman plays, as well as the Bible. The 16 page almanac that accompanied the playing cards consists of a conversation among four friends.

The theme for this deck may reflect something of the religious climate of the day. There is evidence of Tübingen having a Jewish community in its past (e.g. the Middle Ages), but since catholic reforms were being enacted when this deck was being produced, this may have been a motive for choosing illustrations that depicted classical and historical heroes and heroines mostly from Greek mythology. Characters such as Andromaque, Iphigénie, Esther, and Britannicus were also the major roles from tragedies by French playwright Jean Racine, so his work may also have been the intended theme for this deck.

Pictured on the court cards (Jack, Queen, King) of this deck are:
● Clubs: Arcas, Esther, Pyrrhus
● Spades: Burrhus, Andromache, Ahasuerus
● Hearts: Mordecai, Iphigenia, Ulysses
● Diamonds: Orestes, Agrippina, Agamemnon

Ahasuerus (King of Spades) is the Biblical name for Xerxes, the King of Persia who died in 465 BC. Other Biblical characters include Esther (Queen of Clubs), Xerxes’ wife and Jewish heroine who rescued her nation from the evil Haman; and her uncle Mordecai (Jack of Hearts). Agrippina the Younger (Queen of Diamonds) was Nero’s mother, while Sextus Afranius Burrus (Jack of Spades) was a Praetorian prefect, whom Agrippina helped to his position under Claudius and Nero.

Mythical characters include Andromache (Queen of Spades), the wife of Hector of Troy, described in the famous Iliad; Ulysses (King of Hearts), the Greek leader and hero from the Odyssey; Agamemnon (King of Diamonds), leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War; Iphigenia (Queen of Hearts), Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s daughter; Orestes (Jack of Diamonds), their son who kills his mother and her lover for murdering his father; Pirrhus (King of Clubs), son of Archilles, who is put to death by Orestes; and Arcas (Jack of Clubs), son of Jupiter and Kalisto.

Third almanac deck: Wallenstein (1807)

The third of Cotta’s almanac playing cards was published in 1807. It draws on aspects from Schiller’s famous historical drama Wallenstein. The accompanying 16 page almanac consists of a fictitious letter from “Adolf C.” to “Julie”, neither of whom is identified further.

Strongly influenced by the first two decks that were designed by Countess Jennison-Walworth, this third deck was designed and stipple engraved based on sketches by Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur from Stuttgart. He was an army officer, soldier and lieutenant in the 25th Division, which was the Württemberg unit during Napoleonic wars, and was subsequently also a painter. His involvement is indicated by writing at the base of the 10 of Clubs, which says “Christian Faber du Faur inv. et del.

Pictured on the court cards (Jack, Queen, King) of this deck are:
● Clubs: Captain Deveroux, Fraeulein Neubrunn, Lieutenant-General Octavio Piccolomini
● Spades: Captain Neumann, Countess Graefin Terzky, Field Marshal Illo
● Hearts: Baptista Seni, Duchess Herzogin of Friedland, Duke Wallenstein Herzog of Friedland
● Diamonds: Von Rosenberg, Princess Theckla, Colonel Max Piccolomini

The central figure of Albrecht von Wallenstein, the Duke of Friedland who served the Holy Roman Emperor in the Thirty Year’s War, is represented as the King of Hearts. Also depicted are his general Christian von Ilow (“Illo”, King of Spades), and his lieutenant Octavio Piccolomini (King of Clubs). Instead of following his intelligence, Wallenstein foolishly followed his astrologer Baptista Seni (Jack of Hearts). By his many schemes involving multiple countries, Wallenstein eventually found himself in a position where nobody could trust him. Piccolomini was one of Wallenstein’s assassins, along with the English captain Walter Devereux (Jack of Clubs). Other contemporaries of Wallenstein that are depicted include his wife, the Duchess of Friedland (Queen of Hearts).

Some characters blur the line between fiction and reality. This includes Countess Terzky (Queen of Spades), who in real life was Wallenstein’s wife’s sister, but takes on fictional actions in Schiller’s play. Wallenstein’s secretary Newman (Jack of Spades) also makes an appearance, but in the deck becomes the fictional cavalry captain and assistant of Count Terzky. Max Piccolomini (King of Diamonds), the son of the killer Octavio Piccolomini, is also a fictitious character. The same is true of Wallenstein’s princess and daughter Thekla (Queen of Diamonds), her servant von Rosenberg (Jack of Diamonds), and her lady-in-waiting Fraulein Neubrunn (Queen of Clubs).

A replica of this deck was previously produced by George Olms Verlag in 1970, and includes a reprinting of the almanac, along with a separate eight page booklet by Gerhard Hay.

Fourth almanac deck: Arabs (1809)

No deck was issued in 1808, and although we can’t be certain why this was, we do know that the Countess Jennison-Walworth’s mother Diana Beauclerk died that year, so it is possible that this loss interrupted her work on creating images for a new deck. At any rate the fourth almanac was issued in 1809, and was again designed by Countess Jennison-Walworth.

The figures on these court cards represent typical Arabian costumes. The artwork may have been inspired by the Arab population that migrated to Germany or even studied in Tübingen. The accompanying almanac even includes this statement about the Arab clothing: “Hopefully, it will soon come to pass that we shall admire the beautiful owners of a hairdress or an Arab tunic.

Pictured on the court cards (Jack, Queen, King) of this deck are:
● Clubs: ordinary man, country woman, African
● Spades: African, noble-woman, King Reba
● Hearts: merchant, noble-woman, nobleman
● Diamonds: archer, maiden, nobleman

The court cards represent a diverse group of Arabs, including a king named Reba (King of Spades), two nobleman (King of Hearts, King of Diamonds), a merchant (Jack of Hearts), archer (Jack of Diamonds), a man in more ordinary dress (Jack of Clubs), and two African Arabs (Jack of Spades, King of Clubs).

The feminine additions to this include two Arab noble-women (Queen of Spades, Queen of Hearts), a maiden (Queen of Diamonds), and a woman from the country (Queen of Clubs).

Fifth almanac deck: The Pantheon (1810)

The fifth deck of the playing card almanac series was issued in 1810, and was themed around the classical pantheon of gods. The court cards depict various mythological characters, while the number cards include caricatures of famous people like Napoleon, and a variety of comical subjects.

Unlike the other decks in the series of playing card almanacs, this wasn’t produced as an actual deck of playing cards, but in book form, with copper engraving illustrations. But the pictures were printed on separate pages with blank backgrounds, it may have been the intention that the cards be individually cut out from the book. Georg Reinbeck authored the accompanying text of the book. The artwork was designed by Christian Friedrich Osiander (1789-1836), who happened to be another German bookseller from Tübingen.

Pictured on the court cards (Jack, Queen, King) of this deck are:
● Clubs: Momus, Juno, Jupiter
● Spades: Mercury, Minerva, Vulcan
● Hearts: Amor, Venus, Apollo
● Diamonds: Paris, Ceres, Bacchus

Characters were primarily taken from Roman mythology, and included the chief god Jupiter (King of Clubs); Vulcan (King of Spades), the god of fire; Bacchus (King of Diamonds), the god of wine; Mercury (Jack of Spades), the messenger god; and Amor (Jack of Hearts), the god of love who was the son of Venus and Mercury. All the queens depicted female goddesses from the Roman pantheon, including Juno (Queen of Clubs), Jupiter’s wife and the goddess of marriage; Minerva (Queen of Spades), the goddess of learning and craft; Venus (Queen of Hearts), the goddess of love and beauty; and Ceres (Queen of Diamonds), the goddess of fertility.

Representing members of the Greek pantheon were Apollo (King of Hearts), the god of music and medicine; Momus (Jack of Clubs), the son of the Greek goddess Nyx (Night); and Paris (Jack of Diamonds), the Trojan prince and son of Priam and Hecuba.

It is possible that this set was originally intended to be published in the missing year 1808, given that this date is mentioned on the Two of Clubs.

Sixth almanac deck: Knightly Orders (1811)

The final almanac of playing cards was produced in 1811. The drawings were again made by the Countess Jennison-Walworth, and the cards were beautifully engraved and hand-coloured.

The theme of these playing cards is romantic, with spiritual overtones. The court cards show members of various knightly orders, some of which were world famous, while others were much lesser known. The characters are all depicted in the robes of various orders of real knighthood. Sixteen of the number cards have scenes that can be considered illustrative of the four seasons, while the remaining cards otherwise bear no direct connection to chivalry or seasons.

Pictured on the court cards (Jack, Queen, King) of this deck are:
● Clubs: Order of Saint George, Company of the Amanthe, Order of the Crescent
● Spades: Order of St. Catherine of Mount Sinai, Order of the Sash, Company of of Amaranthe
● Hearts: Order of the Porcupine, Tribe of Amazons, Knights Templars
● Diamonds: Order of Saint Lazarus, Order of the Axe, Order of the Elephant

There are many interesting historical details about these orders that can be mentioned. The Knights Templars (King of Hearts) with its distinctive white outfits that were finished with a red cross, is one of the most well-known chivalric orders. It was founded around 1118 in order to protect pilgrims. With its headquarters in Jerusalem, it lasted until 1314. In contrast to their white garments were the black robes (with a white cross) of the Order of Saint Lazarus (Jack of Diamonds). This was the first of the Hospitalers of Jerusalem, which dates back to the 11th century.

Royalty played an important role in founding many chivalric orders. The Order of the Porcupine (Jack of Hearts) was founded in 1394 by the second son of the French king Charles V, while the Order of the Elephant (King of Diamonds), was founded in 1478 by the king of Denmark, Christian I. The Company of Amaranthe (Queen of Clubs, King of Spades) was a chivalric order established by Queen Christina of Sweden in 1653, and was limited to just 15 men and 15 women.

The Order of the Crescent (King of Spades), was a French chivalric order founded as a court order in Angers on 11 August 1448 by King René of Provence. René was one of the champions of the medieval system of chivalry and knighthood, and this order was intended as a rival to the English Order of the Garter. Their motto was “Nobility without blame.” The Order of the Axe (Queen of Diamonds) was founded by the Count of Barcelona, Raymond Berenger IV, in 1149.

Of particular interest is the Queen of Hearts, which depicts an Amazon, to represent the tribe of women who engaged the Greeks in combat during in the Trojan War.

Historical Influences

The artist behind a special project to reproduce the six Cotta decks is Azured Ox, who has done a lot of research in the process of working on these playing cards. Drawing extensively on her knowledge and findings, we can create a larger picture about how the original Cotta decks came to be. I’m indebted to her for much of the information in this article, as well as to sources like Albert Field’s excellent book Transformation Playing Cards (1987).

The story behind these playing cards and their designer Countess von Jennison Walworth begins in Tübingen, a city in southwest Germany. Tübingen is home to one of Europe’s oldest universities and even today combines the colorful bustle of a university town full of students with the flair of a restored medieval center and a touch of many ancient cultures. The Romans already left some traces of their presence here in AD 85, but the city itself dates from the 6th or 7th century. Visitors today can still enjoy the small stairs, narrow alleys, and pointed gables that shape the silhouette of old Tübingen on the way to its famous castle. The atmosphere here is bursting with memories and experiences of the past. Little wonder that this city attracted many eminent notables and artists, who found it inspirational for their work.

We fast forward to 1798, which is the year that the central character of our story, Johann Friedrich Cotta, founded the Allgemeine Zeitung, which quickly became a leading political journal in early 19th-century Germany. Cotta was a publisher, industrial pioneer, and politician, who operated the family publishing house J.G. Cotta that had been founded by his grandfather in the late 1600s. Besides enjoying much respect as a publisher, Johann Freidrich Cotta was also a man of great practical energy, which he poured into areas like politics and agriculture.

Cotta’s work in publishing the political journal Allgemeine Zeitung forms an important background to the publishing of his playing card almanacs. This important journal published the writings of brilliant German authors like Schiller and Goethe. Another important contributor to this magazine was Heinrich Heine, whose early lyric poetry inspired composers like Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert, and who wrote about music, painting, and the French way of life. Men like these were also Cotta’s peers and friends, and influenced his thinking and activities.

Johann Freidrich Cotta’s long term friendship with the famous German poet, dramatist, philosopher, and historian Schiller was well known. In 1795 Schiller and Cotta founded the Horen, a periodical that became important for students of German literature. Schiller’s goal was to use his work to infuse higher ideas into the common lives of men, by giving them a nobler human culture, and “to reunite the divided political world under the banner of truth and beauty.” It was as a result of this publication that Goethe became part of a close circle of friends with Cotta and Schiller. Even today there is evidence at Cotta’s house of Goethe having slept there.

It is probably this friendship that gave birth to the idea of creating a unique deck of transformation playing cards with the purposes of igniting discussion about the “themed” picture on each card. This was after all a time where people were open to such ideas, and producing a series of playing cards as almanacs for a continuous period of years was a natural development.

But history intervened in this plan, because in 1799 Cotta started a political career, and was sent to Paris to represent the Württemberg estates. Here he made friendships which proved very advantageous for his journal Allgemeine Zeitung. In 1801 he paid another visit to Paris in a political capacity, and this gave him opportunity to study Napoleon’s policy, and also gain much that would be useful for his literary efforts. Despite these commitments, he remained devoted to his publishing business, even for many years making all the entries into the ledger with his own hand.

But the picture that emerges from this time in Cotta’s life is that he was constantly engaged in thoughtful conversation with literary men, and enjoyed close friendships with leading figures of the day like Schiller, Huber, Gottlieb Konrad Pfeffel, and others, many of whose works he published. We also notice that in this period of his life he published numerous works of literature, political materials, and also yearbooks.

Much of these influences and activities would later find a place in the Cotta decks, including events in the life of Cotta’s own family and of notable figures like Schiller and Goethe (pictured below). Other important influences include the literature, art, history, politics (e.g. Napoleon’s invasion), and religious reforms of the time, which all served as an important context to shape the art in the decks themselves. For example, Schiller experienced a grave illness that led to his death, and this is even depicted in one of the playing cards from the Cotta decks. In short, there is significance evidence of such connections between the artistic pictures and the immediate context that produced them.

Reproduction Project

A special project is underway, spearheaded by Will Roya from PlayingCardDecks, to produce reproductions of these rare and historic decks. Will Roya has produced quite a number of reproduction decks in recent years, many of which are also transformation decks. Some fine examples include the Vanity Fair deck (1885), Hustling Joe deck (1885), Ye Witches Fortune deck (1886), and Eclipse Comic deck (1876). Other classic decks from this era that aren’t transformation decks but have been reproduced in fine modern editions include the Faro Vintage deck (1887) and Circus deck (1896).

To accomplish these projects, Will Roya has engaged the assistance of graphic designer Azured Ox, who recreates the cards digitally. While high resolution scans of the original playing cards are often used, it is a very labour-intensive project, with some individual cards taking over a day’s work to recreate. The plan is to produce all six Cotta decks individually, throughout the course of 2020.

The colours of each tuck box have been inspired by Goethe’s experimental optic and color theory, which he was obsessed with in his final years, and considered to be even more important than his literary works. It was his belief that colors are realities and phenomena of nature, and his color theory was intended to serve as a paradigm for natural science in general. Goethe was also fascinated by the psychological effects of colours, believing that different colours symbolized different values and thus impact our mind and feelings in different ways. Since Goethe was an important contemporary of Cotta, along with Schiller, the choices of colour for the tuck boxes is a homage to his formulation of a psychological and philosophical account of how we actually experience color as a phenomenon.

As with the previous reproduction decks, the Cotta decks are being printed by United States Playing Card Company, makers of the well-known Bicycle brand. This means we can expect a quality product with good looks and good handling. Funding will come with the help of Kickstarter, and Will Roya is an experienced and respected creator with a proven track record. He has often used crowdfunding to produce his decks, typically with a fairly quick turnaround.

Conclusion

Transformation playing cards exhibit a level of creativity and ingenuity like few other decks. The artists creating them must work within the limitations produced by the need to incorporate the pips into their design. Yet within these restraints there is scope for a great deal of creativity. Doing this in an imaginative and original manner presents a real challenge. The world’s first ever transformation decks that produced by Cotta demonstrate something of both the challenge and the creativity that this involves.

The Cotta transformation decks are extremely significant, given the many transformation decks they subsequently inspired, and the unique place they occupy in playing card history. To be able to enjoy them in a fine modern version that carefully reproduces these keystone decks is a real privilege, and I’m delighted that these classics are being brought to contemporary audiences with a quality edition!

Credit: The Famous J.G. Cotta Transformation Decks