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Chinese mother-of-pearl Whist markers




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The card games played in the homes of the wealthy families of the UK were always changing with fashion. Loo, quadrille, Pope Joan, ombre. piquet, voltarete all had their moment: these games all required a set of counters or chips for playing much as poker chips are used now: the different shapes or sizes had different values so that you could vary the amount of money you were betting according to the cards that you held.

But when Whist arrived on the scene all this changed. You didn't need a box full of counters to play any more. All you needed was a method of recording the tricks and games won. For short Whist the winner was the first player or pair of players to reach five points; in long Whist it was the first to reach nine. The impact of Whist was great. Many previously popular card games fell out of favour and with them went the large sets of Chinese gaming counters, which were often hidden away in the attics or cellars. Whist took the country by storm. It was the game to play. Of course by this time there must have been a considerably large body of very skilled workers producing mother-of-pearl counters and they were offering a very wide range of styles: deep-carved and or fretted counters with intricate scenes of Chinese life; large beautifully decorated counters with character scenes; standard sized counters. And don't forget fishes which were still being produced in large numbers. Over the space of perhaps twenty years from around 1820 the demand for counters gradually slowed down and the workers clearly needed to turn their skills to other areas. The small metal and mother-of-pearl box illustrated (not intended for gaming purposes, but possibly a patch or snuff box) was produced in around 1830 and it shows how the essential skills of the workers was easily transferrable from counters to other areas. Here the sides and lid of the box are decorated in exactly the same style as deep-carved counters with excellent effect.

Recording the score at Whist could be done in a number of ways. It could be achieved with as few as four counters and metal Whist marker sets in small round boxes were one very popular method. The majority of Whist marker sets produced in Europe comprise four counters as shown in the metal box illustrated. 'Keep Your Temper' was a widely used catch-phrase for Whist players - and a useful piece of advice as well! There are very many variations on the theme of Whist marker sets, involving many different materials from treen to gold but the principle is generally the same. Some boxes explain the system used for counting up to eight or nine which was referred to as Hoyle's method and involved setting out the four counters in a series of conventional ratios.

But Whist marker sets were also still produced in Canton as well. For some reason, Chinese Whist counters sets were nearly always produced in sets of eight and often contained in very well carved small round ivory boxes. The set of counters in them will vary in style but they are generally exactly the same round counters as were used in gaming sets. In fact people are likely to have re-cycled round counters from their large sets as Whist markers. A typical ivory box is illustrated which was filled with eight fretted counters of standard quality.  But in rare cases, these boxes were personalised with a crest or armorial as in the next box illustrated where the crest of a stag with the monogram FH is carved into the lid to match the counters - though these do not have the monogram.

Furthermore the demand for personalised marker sets was not restricted to ivory boxes: the illustration shows a rare example of a mother-of-pearl and silver octagonal box with the crest and monogram engraved onto the lid, matching exactly the counters. Here the monogram M is supplemented by the crest of a lion passant regardant, chained and ducally gorged. This set was probably produced in around 1810.

If the use of eight counters was slightly surprising, then a new development in around 1840 was even more so: the production of sets of fourteen counters in two shapes, generally round and 'square' but sometimes with long-oblongs replacing the 'squares'. It appears that fourteen was the target number for these sets although some may have been made with other combinations of numbers as boxes exist which appear complete with thirteen counters in the two shapes. The next set illustrated is rather special, despite the wear to the silk lining, as it still bears the retailer's label for Lee Ching who owned a shop in Hong Kong and specialised in Cantonese export wares. This silk-covered cardboard box contains eight round and six 'square' deep-carved counters.

At the top end of the market were ivory boxes containing the same number of deep-carved counters. These boxes are a delight in themselves and are rare. The one illustrated contains armorial counters ( the crest is not repeated on the lid however) and the crest is likely to have been engraved onto a blank roundel in the UK as there is no back-hatching behind the crest of a pair of wings with the motto 'Aye Forward'. The counters themselves are exceptionally thick (3/16 inch) and involve not just the 'standard' deep-carving technique but an even more refined and effective method with several different layers of carving giving a 3-dimensional effect. These boxes were sometimes produced in pairs which must have been extremely rare and expensive.

It should also be noted that the French were also producing mother-of-pearl counters for use in Whist marker sets; these were often numbered from 1 to 4 but there was generally no attempt to decorate the counters in the Chinese fashion and they were often put into small round metal boxes.

 

 


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