Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections

Exhibition Themes > Music > 224. Beggar's Opera

224.  The Beggar's Opera. Playing Cards. England, ca. 1730. RBML, Albert Field Collection of Playing Cards

The Field Collection, one of the most comprehensive collections of playing cards in the world, consists of close to 6,000 packs. Included in the collection are tarot packs; miniature packs; packs depicting generals, presidents, and sports figures; and transformation packs, where suit signs change into human heads, butterflies, bees, birds, or fish. The collection also contains depictions of historic events, representing changes in social customs, political context, and design. A sequence of packs from early 20th-century Russia, for example, shows increasingly vicious images of the imperial court. The deck of cards shown here contains the words and music for the songs in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, first performed in London on January 29, 1728.

Albert Field, who performed as a magician during his early years, incorporated card tricks into his magic acts, and collected cards from the countries he toured. Field received a B.A. in English Literature from Columbia University, and an M.A. from Harvard, and then taught English and science in New York City high schools. Field met Salvador Dali in the early 1940s, and was chosen by the artist to be his official archivist in 1955. Field proceeded to catalogue thousands of Dali works and fakes, eventually becoming the foremost authority in the field.

Bequest of Albert Field, 2003

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