In the beginning…

decks for research

This post is an expanded version of an already long Facebook post and is here as a way of kicking off the research into the visual style of the new deck.


Over the last 6-7 years my interest in the older Marseille style decks has grown exponentially . There is something wonderfully appealing about the simple style the way the cards read that has become my preferred reading method for tarot. These decks, while looking plain and un-mystical compared with the “moonlight-and-velvet” style of many modern decks, are so full of symbols and down to earth practical messages I find them hard to ignore.  I’ve been reading with a Besancon deck almost full time these days. What is a Besancon deck some may ask? Well I’ll get more into that in a future post don’t worry today though a bit on the scholarly side of doing a deck.

Doing research is, for me, a huge part of making a deck. I love looking into either the culture or time period and getting inspired by it. For the new deck a trip to Connecticut to fill in some gaps in my tarot and cartomancy research was needed. In the move out here to Mass. I put myself within a few hours drive of one of the largest collections of rare playing and tarot cards in the nation, that being the Cary collection held at Yale’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This is a collection of over 2,600 different decks spanning almost 600 years of card making. I applied back in January for a research pass to do investigations in the collections and earlier this year I made the trip with my partner Jason to see what the collection had.

The building, of Vermont marble and granite, bronze and glass, was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, of the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; the George A. Fuller Construction Company was the general contractor. Work began on the building in 1960 and was completed in 1963. Truly a work of ugly is there ever was one
The building, of Vermont marble and granite, bronze and glass, was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, of the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; the George A. Fuller Construction Company was the general contractor. Work began on the building in 1960 and was completed in 1963. Truly a work of ugly is there ever was one

The Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, it must be said, is the ugliest building on the campus. When you drive there you are met with the quaint colonial town of New Haven then with the faux English Gothic buildings of Yale and smack dab in the middle the strange Borge Collective like structure of the Beinecke. I get the whole mixing modern with classic deal but this is just not my taste. Really it need not look pretty but rather be a safe place for the thousands of rare items within it’s walls.

When you enter it’s a cube inside a cube layout with a center cube of glass walled stacks going up and down the center of the building in a multi floor column of rare book deliciousness. First one goes over to a locker along the backside of the main hallway and stores all your personal belongings. You can bring notebooks and laptops but that’s about it. Then you get to go down stairs to the Reading Room and sign in. We completed our registration with them before hand but being our first time there we had to have out pictures taken and such and such. I had already requested several times so we were directed to the Reading Room.

The stacks
The stacks in the center cube of the library

This is a closed stack library meaning that you can’t just wonder and browse but rather you need to request and wait. You search the library’s holdings and fill out your request numbers in the database where they are then printed out at the Pick Up desk and a runner goes up into that great glass walled cube of books and manuscripts and brings the requested materials to the deck where they then page you to pick them up. They allow you one item at a time and you must use certain precautions when using the items. There are special grey foam wedges to hold the bindings of the centuries old books on and special weights you use to keep them open. Once you are done with an item you place it back in it’s box and hand it back to the desk and retrieve your next request. One is allowed to photograph with a phone or camera but not set up a tripod or professional equipment so believe me when I tell you my phone got it’s second big workout of the month after the Boston Collage tarot haul.

The special foam to place the books and binders on
The special foam to place the books and binders on
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The World card from the Cary- Yale deck. The cards are stunning

The main reason for going was to see the oldest tarot deck still in existence a deck called the Cary Yale after it’s last owner and the school. It was a wedding present given at the marriage of two very powerful families back in 1428. The deck was hand painted and hand leaved in gold and silver. The it truly is a work of art. While this was the main reason to go it turned out to be only the beginning of a stunning journey into this collection.

The Cary Yale cards need to be seen in person to be truly appreciated. The luster of the gold and deep sheen of the silver with the strokes of jewel like colors painted on the cards is stunning. The cards are housed in special holders and matted on either side with about 2 inches of cream board so you never actually touch the cards themselves. Each is kept in it’s own big grey box and taking them out is like opening up a big box of magic.

Throughout the day we saw so many amazing things. We read through old handwritten witchcraft notebooks from the 1700’s complete with magic circle diagrams and spell work instructions, found rare cartomancy decks that have never seen the light of day on the internet and handled binder after binder of antique cards. Part of the wonder of seeing these cards in person is being able to see the true colors and textures of them. I’m working on a restoration of an old deck so seeing these was very enlightening.

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The mammoth brick of a box containing the Esta tarot was a surprise.

One the card highlights we saw was the Este Tarot of which 16 survive from 1450. I had not seen this deck before and so had no clue what to expect. I went up to get my item from the desk and they hand me a 2ft x 1ft x 1ft red box that must have weighted 20 pounds. I got back to our research table and took the lid off. The front of the box thunked open revealing a set of 16 slots and in each slot a familiar cream colored card holder. Pulling the first card out I could not help but gasp at the beauty. They were stunning piece of art as you will see in the photos.

Some of the requests came in binders which were the best. What made them cool was that if I requested a deck numbered EG123 the binder may house EG100-EG125 so I was handed a binder with 25 stunning tarot decks in it rather then just having the one. It meant that we now had to look back at the catalogs to see what all we had but it also meant that we saw things we never would have requested and they were awesome.

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The first of several boxes of woodblocks

The day when on like this for several hours and even I was beginning to get a little overloaded with tarot and information but I made one final request that turned out to be the most astonishing one of the day. It was a whim request for some tarot ‘blocks’. We had to wait a while for them but the curator came out wheeling a cart with 4 heavyboxes on it.The boxes were about 3ft x 2ft x 3in. and inside were the original printing blocks for a deck in the very style that I am reading with. This was gold. Here was all the original hand carved line work in full detail. I just about lost my shit when I saw these I just about lost my shit much to the amusement of the security guards that got a kick out of watching my excitement throughout the day.


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I picked them up and handled them, drooled on them, studied them and photographed them. They had 64 of the 78 cards so it was not the full deck but it’s enough to be able to see how the lines were made and how they were composed before the colors were inked on. This is huge when wanting to work in this style. Seeing how the saying was done and what is really there vs what is on the reproductions of printed decks can give me a better sense of what the true feeling of the card was like. These boxes were studied for quite a long time before being sent back. While I know the project will not to be to make yet another reproduction of an old deck I want to get the feeling of the lines and the colors.  Having reproductions is one thing, but being able to see the originals in such a way is truly inspiring.

Here are several decks that we saw:

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And with that trip under my belt the sketch pad was broken out and getting into what do I want this deck deck to look like begun. It’s going to be an interesting ride on this one I think.

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