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Grey family - unusual shape combination

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It is pleasing to discover groups of counters which have stayed together for 250 years and have not been dispersed as it gives us clues about the dates and composition of sets of counters. It is all too difficult to piece together the jigsaw of gaming counters, given the absence of any written records of the time. It has been a matter of conjecture for instance when fishes ceased to be part of a normal order of armorial gaming counters: as has been established, double-fishes were ordered for playing ‘Ombre’ a card game which fell from popularity by 1730 and completely disappeared soon after, so despite their rarity, double-fishes are easier to date. Armorial single-fishes continued to be ordered for at least thirty years after the demise of double-fishes; non-armorial single fishes with the billing bird motif were hugely popular to judge by their present availability from around 1760 when the billing birds started to be used right through into the nineteenth century. It seems likely that whereas rich and prosperous families ordered sets of counters which reflected their ability to pay i.e. armorial, monogrammed or simply - at the lower end of the market - with a conforming decorative theme often in a roundel ( flowers,  billing birds, pagodas, basket of fruit), many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of fishes were produced for the lower middle-classes or even working classes to use.  But fishes were not part of a normal order of armorial counters when the standard of three shapes of counters (long-oblong, ‘square’ and round) was established in around 1770. And to complicate matters even more, double dogs-of-Fo in two variant styles were very occasionally used.

There appear thus to have been a variety options for ordering sets:

  1. double fish single fish and round (1715 -1735?)
  2. rounds and single fishes (1735? – 1750)
  3. double dog-of-Fo single fish and round (1740-?)
  4. square long oblong and round (1760 -1840)
  5. oval shuttle and round (1790- 1810)

It is possible that for some examples in the case of option 2, double-fishes may not have survived or are yet to be recorded or also that double dogs of Fo are likewise yet to be recorded. What is of great interest in the set under discussion here, is that the counters were found in three shapes, fish double dog-of-Fo (short version) and round. The fact that the round was present (as well as the style of the double dog-of-Fo and also an armorial service most probably ordered at the same time) allows us to date the set to around 1770 - 1780 and thus to determine with some level of certainty that armorial fishes were still in use at least up to that date.


The counters in question are illustrated below. All three bear the crest of a demi-lion rampant holding what appears to be a scaling ladder in miniature. David S. Howard offers the following description of an armorial porcelain service ordered for the Grey family in Chinese Armorial Porcelain volume II page 610 ( with a suggested date of  circa 1800):


‘The crest of a lion sejant or (gold) holding a scaling ladder gules (red) is not recorded but it would seem very likely, particularly from the way the lion is posed and the paws are placed , that this is intended for A demi-lion holding a scaling ladder – recorded only for Grey but with no other designation. It may well have been copied from a seal or other small original.

The scaling ladder was borne by those whose families had once been engaged in the border wars – particularly on the Scottish and Welsh marches. The Greys……were of Howick (Scotland)…………..The only record  of the name Grey at this time in the East India Company appears to be Marmaduke Grey, a senior merchant in Bengal in 1790 having been there since 1777…….’


Further clues as to the date come from the counters themselves. The double-dog of Fo shares the reverse pattern of the star/flower with the round and this was in general use on counters in around 1770. In addition the round has the ‘coils’ pattern, one of the first true border patterns to be used on counters in around 1760 -1770 ( see Chinese Mother of Pearl Gaming Counters pages 9 and 14  figs. 10 and 33, 34 and also Armorial Chinese Gaming Counters pages 13- 14 figs. 35 and 39). This would allow a slightly earlier possible date for the counters than that proposed for the porcelain and it looks very likely that the counters were thus produced in around 1770 – 1780.

To give some idea of the rarity of armorial double-fishes and double dogs-of-Fo, there are records of:

  • four armorial double fishes
  • forty-nine different armorial fishes
  • seven double dogs-of-Fo (two long and five ‘square’)

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