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Fine Art Reviews

Fine Art Reviews

Playing, Learning, Flirting: Printed Board Games from Eighteenth-Century France

Location: Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury
Event Date: July 2012
Review Date: 19th July 2012
Reviewed By: Jennifer Thorp, New College, Oxford
Review Citation: Jennifer Thorp, review of Playing, Learning, Flirting: Printed Board Games from Eighteenth-Century France
Date Accessed: 31st July 2015

This very pleasing exhibition literally does what it says on the label. Rachel Jacobs’s carefully researched and well presented exhibition displays over thirty items from Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild’s collection of printed board games, sheets of playing cards and educational prints, supplemented by examples of dice, tokens, and a superb example of a Guillaume Kemp marquetry games cabinet of 1764 on loan from Longleat House. Together they lead the visitor through the historical development, evidential and educational value, artistic quality and sheer fun of eighteenth-century board games, most of which were based on the Jeu de l’Oie or Game of the Goose. Known since the 1590s and very popular by the late-seventeenth century, this game established the basic principles of most future board games played by throwing dice and moving counters round a race-track of ‘squares’ or compartmented spaces on a board. Occasionally progress was hindered or helped by landing on punitive or beneficial squares, much as in modern Snakes and Ladders: the beneficial squares allowed the player immediately to move the same number of squares forward, while the punitive squares involved paying a token forfeit, going back several squares on the board, or even starting again from square one. Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild was clearly enchanted by these board games, and built up an impressive collection of mainly French examples at Waddesdon in the 1890s. The oldest game displayed is not in fact a goose game or even French. It is a didactic diagram of the Platonic model of the universe, published in Haarlem by Ambrose Schevenhuyse c.1600, and it depicts the Earth as part of a series of concentric circles representing the four Elements of earth, water, air and fire, and man’s industrial exploitation of each. The earliest jeu de l’oie board game on display is Valerio Spada’s Pilgrimage game, published in Florence in 1650, and exhibits the classic iconography of sixty-three numbered ‘squares’and occasional beneficial squares (geese), all arranged as a spiral track round the rules of play in the centre.

The games catered for a wide range of social classes and tastes: at one end of the scale, for instance, the finely engraved Jeu de fortifications (c.1751) taught the principles of military engineering and geometry necessary to the noble students at the newly-formed royal military academy, while at the other the garish and crudely drawn Jeu de bons enfants: vivans sans soucy ni chagrin (c.1760-80) perhaps referred to the antics of the fairground troupe known as Les Enfans sans Soucy. Darker humour is evident in Le Jeu d’ecole des plaideurs (c.1685) which satirises the bureaucracy of the law courts; presented as a pastime to while away the hours in court waiting for one’s lawyer to arrive, the game perhaps offered more insights than any lawyer would provide, and its bitter humour is apparent in the absence of any beneficial squares, the final squares of destitution and imprisonment, and the comment in the rules that a player might be well advised to give up before the end. A century later, Le Jeu de la Revolution Française (1790) has the players follow the events which began with the storming of the Bastille and culminated in the formation of the ‘Palladium of Liberty’ (the National Assembly of 1789), assisted along the way by thirteen beneficial squares each depicting a pair of geese in black gowns and caps, labelled ‘Oyes bridez’ (‘Nincompoops’) and representing the thirteen Parlements. In a lighter vein, Le Nouveau jeu bruiant des cries de Paris (1808) not only tapped into older traditions of picturing street traders but also, as its name suggests, may have involved the players singing or shouting the appropriate cries. A slightly different form was adopted for Le petit jeu d’amour (c.1805) in which mild flirtation between partnered boys and girls was encouraged by a game of forfeits and rewards.

The games for adults reflect a range of preoccupations, and alongside those poking gentle fun at French fashions appear games of serious religious, cultural and political relevance. It is interesting to see in them some of the changing preoccupations of French society: for example, the crushing of Jansenism in the early part of the century, military and naval warfare in the middle of the century, Enlightenment philosophy during the 1770s (Le Nouveau jeu de la vie humaine (1778) is particularly attractive in this respect, depicting in its eighty-four squares the ages of man and ending with an image of Voltaire ‘made immortal through his talent and merit over a career of eighty-four years’), and the constitutional ideals of the Revolution in 1790-91. Games relating to travel, however, whether for business or pleasure, remained fairly constant throughout the century.

Several of the exhibits reveal direct influences from literature and art: the chart of friendship in Madame de Scudery’s Clelié for instance inspired the fantasy map l’Empire de Coeur nearly a century later; Racine’s Les Plaideurs inspired Le jeu d’ecole des plaideurs (c.1685); and La Fontaine’s work reappears as the theme of Le jeu instructif des Fables de La Fontaine (c.1780). The intriguing depiction of named actors in named roles in Le Nouveau jeu des théâtres de Melpomene, Momus et Thalie (1811) surely reflects the poses and gestures found in contemporary manuals of acting, rhetoric and dance, while Le Nouveau jeu de la vie humaine (1775) even includes a tiny Chardinesque image of a boy building a house of cards, on square no. 6.

These games cannot be said to be purely ephemeral, for they reflect every shade of political, philosophical and cultural opinion, and that was their educational and topical strength at the time and their value to us today as primary source material in a highly attractive visual form. Particularly effective in this respect are Chapouland’s meticulous designs for Le Nouveau jeu de la marine (1768) which depict and describe in great detail French sailing vessels and battle manoeuvres at the end of the Seven Years War.

While some of the board games and playing cards are anonymous, others identify the print-sellers and engravers who produced them. Historians of the court of Louis XIV will be interested to see, among the names of late-seventeenth century designers and engravers, Stefano Della Bella – on a reissue of the didactic playing-card game Jeux historiques des Rois de France originally commissioned by Cardinal Mazarin for the edification of the young Louis XIV in 1644 – and Pierre Le Pautre, the soon-to-become Dessinateur de bâtiments du Roi, who engraved the designs for Le Jeu de la guerre (1698) dedicated to the Duc de Bourgogne. Recurring names from the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries are the Crépy family (seven examples dating from c.1685 to c.1790) and Paul-André Basset (six examples dating from c.1780 to 1815).

Phillippa Plock and Adrian Seville’s initial cataloguing of the Waddesdon collection and Rachel Jacobs’s curatorial skills have resulted in an exhibition of scholarly merit as well as visual interest and entertainment, and it is good that the research will not end when the exhibition closes on 28 October 2012. There is no published catalogue, but a number of the exhibits are described and discussed in Rachel Jacobs’s illustrated article ‘Playing, Learning, Flirting: Printed Board Games from Eighteenth-Century France’, published in The Ephemerist no. 157 (Summer 2012), pp. 15-22; and there are also plans to make the collection of board games available online, along with more detailed descriptions and discussion of each item.

'Playing, Learning, Flirting: Printed Board Games from Eighteenth-Century France' is at Waddesdon Manor from 28 March to 28 October 2012.
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