It cannot be overstated how important card-play was to social life of the rich and famous around 1800 and that is borne out by the surprisingly large number of sets of Chinese armorial counters that were obtained at great cost. And the names of those people may raise eyebrows - bishops, prime ministers, financiers and even royalty. Card play was an integral part of social life. The most famous set was that ordered for Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. It is recorded in the diary of one of the Queen's ladies in waiting that the Queen spent many, many hours at cardplay - perhaps too many, because King George is reported to have been so alarmed at the losses she was incurring that he locked away her set of gaming counters! Her counters are superbly produced with all the detail of the arms of The United Kingdon prior to 1801 ( which also helps us to date the counters with reasonable accuracy) impaling the arms of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. As was normal there were three shapes of counter in the set which is reported to have been a double set of 280 counters.
The heraldic detail is reproduced in full detail by the Chinese workers; the crown shows her official crown and the monogram CR stands for Charlotte Regina ( Queen Charlotte). The border with flowers in reserves has the honour of being called The Queen Charlotte border in use in around 1785. Several examples of these counters are held in the Royal museum in Windsor.
King George and Queen Charlotte had a large family and it should not be surprising that several of them had their own sets of counters. It is rumoured that the King himself had a set made. The next counter illustrated was made for one of the sons of the King and Queen - here again the fine detail of the arms and crown to one of the sons of the King - but are not more specific. And since the Royal couple produced fifteen children it may not be possible to know which one.
The counter shown below was produced for Prince William Frederic, Duke of Gloucester who was married to princess Mary.
But the most spectacular of all - and probably my favourite counter of all 1910 in the collection - was made for Prince Edward Augustus, the fourth son.
The central coat of arms surrounded by the garter wreath and motto ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense’ dates the counter to the last years of the 18th century. The medallion underneath is for the Order of St. Patrick, a Royal Order begun in 1783 (the date even appears on the counter in Latin) with the motto ‘Quis separabit’ (Who will separate us?); beautifully drawn bearers – the lion and the unicorn - are the ones used on the Royal arms and the coronet is a repeat of the one on the other side with the addition of a lion statant regardant. It is astonishing that so much minute detail could be faithfully inscribed by hand onto a piece of mother-of-pearl measuring just 2 ½ inches by 1 13/16 inches (64 by 46 mm.). The details on the counter allow us to establish that it was produced for his Royal Highness Prince Edward Augustus, fourth son of George III and Queen Charlotte. The motto ‘Aut vincere aut Mort’ which is not recorded for Prince Edward Augustus. This was the motto of Augustus, the Roman Emperor born in 63 BC and is also the motto of the Perfect Elect Freemason. Prince Edward Augustus was Grand Master of the Ancients, a Masonic order. Could he perhaps have commissioned the counters for use in his lodge? Edward Augustus born in 1767 and died in 1820; he was Duke of Kent and Strathearn and was created Earl of Dublin in 1799, becoming Commander in Chief in North America in the same year. Edward became one of the founding Knights of the Order of St. Patrick in 1783, Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1786 and Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Guelphic Order in 1815. He was the father of Queen Victoria. He accumulated great debts perhaps with the help of this counter and the others in the set - debts which were only repaid gradually by his daughter after she ascended to the throne in 1837.
It was not just English royalty who oredered sets of gaming counters: King Charles IV of Spain had a magnificent set of deep-carved counters made a few years later ( he abdicated in 1808). It is hard to imagine which how the Chinese workers managed to copy by hand the astonishing detail with such accuracy - and to have produced the same detail consistently on all 140 counters in the set.
And while he may not come under the heading 'Royalty', Napoleon Bonaparte had his own set made - not in Canton but in France, probably Palais Royal. They were incredibly beautiful - and expensive no doubt. Made from gold, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl, they have Napoleon's crest of the bee. The remainder of the set is on display in their original box in the Wallace Collection in London.