METASTASIS, to most people, is a word with rather grim connotations – referring as it does to the spread of cancer. Applied to a set of playing cards, however, it has an altogether different and more attractive meaning.
Creating 'Transformation' playing cards, in which the pip cards,
whilst retaining their proper position and shape, are transformed
into pictorial designs, became popular as a pastime at the very
beginning of the 19th century - first in Germany and rapidly
At first, hand-drawn packs were made, but in September 1803 John
Nixon began issuing sheets of designs that could be purchased plain
or coloured and cut out and pasted on pasteboard as required.
Then in 1811, S.& J. Fuller of Rathbone Place, London,
produced what may have been the first printed English pack, a set
of 52 cards based on John Nixon's designs, drawn by a Mr Cowell and
The early sheets and the complete printed Metastasis
packs are now exceptionally rare and the English Playing Card
Society (EPCS) is currently working on a facsimile of that 1811
pack to mark the 25th anniversary of its founding.
The EPCS Metastasis decks are primarily intended for
distribution among members, with some reserved for sale to the
public, but the catalogue of a very recent provincial sale hinted
that the real and very rare thing might be out there as well.
Tucked away in a September 15 furniture sale held by
Woolley & Wallis (19.5% buyer's premium) of
Salisbury was a lot offering not one, but two packs of what were
catalogued as Metastasis transformation cards of 1811. In
fact, these two packs were not examples of that edition but a later
one of c.1820 - but still of the utmost rarity as early examples of
The saleroom noted that one card, a nine of hearts, was missing
from one deck, and that several were drawn rather than printed. I
understand from the buyer that the latter, five in all, were not
copies of the missing cards, simply substitutes, and that neither
pack could thus be viewed as complete - but an estimate of £200-300
was always likely to be left far behind.
Principal competition was between a bidder in the room and
another on the telephone, the former being pushed to his absolute
limit before finally securing the cards at £7200.
By Ian McKay