The Knapp-Hall Tarot and Augustus Knapp by Alma Puissegur
In preparation for Ron Decker's talk in September, I purchased a copy of the 1985
reprint of the Knapp-Hall deck to take with me
when I made a second visit to him at the Museum. As I hoped, he
whipped out the original 1929 version. What a difference in the colors
of the two decks!
Gone are the luscious plums and purples replaced, variously, with black,
grey. The Hermit was surrounded by a deep purple background that now is
Justice’s once pale lilac robe is now muddy grey. The Angel in
L’Amourax (misspelled - it should be L’Amourex according to Ron) is no longer draped in
and the shadow under her foot is now grass-colored; because of the impact of her new
yellow robe, she actually appears closer to the couple in the newer version of
In the Fool, the sky is no longer lilac, but green, and his coat, once purple, is now orange red; however, the Fool appears more attractive now to me. The colors are richer and I like the color combination of the clothes better, plus the black wrinkles on his clothes stand out more, making the figure more realistic and lifelike.
Justice once had the perfect Victorian color scheme, with the deep rich purple-red chair. It is now merely gaudy as the yellow pours through the gold throne. The Empress’ breasts, because of the new color contrasts, appear larger and more prominent.
The differences are striking and distinct. An eight year- old boy who came into the museum with his father saw the cards colorfully spread out over the table, so he strode right over, in his brash young boy way, and demanded to see what we were looking at. Without much help from us, he distinguished between the old and the new quickly, and pronounced, without our asking, that the old deck was much better.
"There are various reasons for the color changes. The new printing process loves yellows and hates purples, and purple and yellow cancel one another out and result in black. Blue in the original goes to green in the newer deck. The originals were probably photographs of the original art and the 1985 cards are probably photos of the old cards. The newer inks and their formulas and the color separation could all affect the results. Some of the difference is attributable to the matte card stock of the old deck; the new deck has shiny hard cards," Ron said.
The size of the cards is amazingly similar; to the naked eye, the only difference is that the original deck has square cut and the 1985 deck , rounded corners. And, as mentioned, the original is on untreated paper and has a matte finish; the 1985 deck is laminated and has a shiny finish.
Ron Decker says the only improvement in the newer version is " the better paper quality which was used for the new deck." The old card stock had imperfections in it, which show up in Ron's deck as dark brown spots of varying sizes; in addition, the cutting of the cards was uneven - in L’Amourax the image was so off center that the Hebrew letter was almost clipped off.
The back of the deck is a design in blue and white and contains Egyptian figures that were taken from a bronze tablet called the Table of Isis which was originally located in Rome and is now perhaps in Turin, Italy. Knapp chose the figures for the cards; the table itself is covered with hieroglyphic figures.
“The one with breasts is otherwise male” and is HAPI, the God of the Nile; "He has a papyrus plant on his head," said Ron. The other is GEB, the god of the earth’s surface. The one smaller image might be Isis, and the pyramid and the Sphinx appear below. No one now knows why Knapp picked those figures (Earth and Water) and not Air and Fire or others, because the table surface is covered with the images. Ron says “Manly Hall’ s writing ridicules Egyptian contact with tarot; was Knapp getting in his two cents worth?"
There is no translation of the table top because it is " linguistically corrupt and means nothing." It could have been merely a decorative table made by a skilled Roman artist. The table has inspired fantasies by tarotists who think it may be an artifact, but Decker thinks that is pure fantasy.
At the conference, Decker will not be discussing the artistic merits of the cards, but the symbols. Until more recent times, tarot scholars didn’t explore the symbols. Crowley wrote out the symbolism and designs for his tarot deck thirty years before he actually got the deck completed.
As an example, Ron referred to the similar hats on the Le Bateleur and La Force, which are now interpreted to be the infinity symbol; Decker says, "The design on the card was done long before mathematicians applied the figure eight design to symbolize infinity. The hat was actually the design worn at the time that particular deck was first designed. If I am right, it is an example of people pressing their own theories to fit their own conclusions, rather than an accurate observation of the real world at the time the cards were created."
The synchronicity of Ron’s exploration of J. Augustus Knapp is rather
became more interested in Knapp while writing The Tarot Mystique. Ron knew that he
would have to
get information from the New York Public Library because they had some rare
books on Knapp. Along with Knapp”s signature on some of the illustrations in the
books were printed notations about Cincinnati, Ohio. He
correspondence with several people across the country about this.
Then one day, while working at the USPC Museum, a local librarian came in to ask some questions about the museum or the company and in conversation, Ron casually mentioned the name “Knapp”. “You mean J. Augustus Knapp? One of my friends is his granddaughter and she lives six blocks from here in a house he designed and built and filled with his art,” the librarian responded.
From Knapp’s granddaughter and from his own research, Ron learned a great deal about Knapp.
Knapp was the first artist hired by US Playing Cards! He didn’t work there for long, but during his short tenure, he designed a calendar to be used for promotional purposes. Although he left shortly thereafter, the company continued to crib off the original design for years, taking details from here and there and using them on other products.
There is also a written record with the company that Knapp designed a joker of “General Boone” which Decker believes is Daniel Boone . In one of his first acts as an employee of US Playing Cards, Ron Decker participated in a mail and phone auction to purchase a western theme calendar which the company realized it had originally produced and wanted for its archives. The auction was a lively affair and Ron Decker could clearly hear over the phone line the cowboys “a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ in the background”. When he got the calendar and examined it, he realized it was by Knapp and located an internal company receipt for its payment in 1882.
Other interesting Knapp facts: he was widowed and remarried in his late 60s or early 70s. He alienated his first family, including the granddaughter who told Ron Decker that the second wife " dressed like a man and practiced nonscientific medicine." She practiced what was then called " aeclectic medicine", which would be close to alternative medicine today, involving acupuncture, herbs, and the like.
The Knapps moved to California and it is there that Knapp and Hall met. Knapp had done the illustrations for John Uri Lloyd’s book Etidorhpa (“Aphrodite” spelled backwards - Ron can’t pronounce it; he laughed and grabbed my pencil and pad and spelled it out backwards for my notes). Hall had admired the pictures, and once, when Knapp’s wife was lecturing on occult anatomy, Hall was in the audience and met Knapp that night through Knapp’s wife. Knapp probably illustrated a couple of dozen books for Hall and the Society.
Knapp did not live much longer after the deck was completed. His wife survived him and had him cremated and his ashes thrown into the Pacific, which probably alienated his Cincinnati relations even more. His conservative Cincinnati family did not follow his occult beliefs.
Ron Decker was unable to find the original art for the cards. He went to the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles and asked to see the original art, but was refused. Ron suspects it is not at the Society and he knows of no one who knows where the originals are today. If the Society had the original art work, Ron believes they would naturally be proud to display and exhibit it. Their web site has many examples of Knapp’s other art, which they sell in prints. Ron says it is so ubiquitous that it is almost clip art.