Victoria Regina Tarot
by Sarah Ovenall and Georg Patterson
The Victoria Regina Tarot features steel and wood engravings from the late Victorian era (1880-1895), seamlessly and intuitively captured together in collage, by artist Sarah Ovenall. The images combine aspects of this age - early industrialism, serious dress, elaborate architectural design, and British royalty - into effective tarot symbols.
I was looking forward to the publication of this set for a long time. I even dreamt of it once, many months ago, after visiting the artist's striking website, and seeing the images for the first time. One of the very first things that appealed to me was the image of the Hermit holding his pen. I related to the two aspects of this - the lone hermit himself, withdrawn from others; and the significance of the pen as both a tool for exploring and expressing wisdom, and as a possible crutch upon which one can obsessively lean. I also felt some immediate affinity for the artwork the collages were created from. Though I am not a huge fan of Victoriana, I have appreciated it before, during several times in my life. When I was a young teen, I loved Caswell-Massey catalogues, with their Victorian feel. Also, years ago I worked as a professional baker at a gourmet market whose newsletters (which loyal customers saved for their recipes and style) were inspired by nineteenth century newspapers, and were complete with Victorian art, similar to the art of these cards.
From what I could tell from my first view of this set, the deck seemed whole. Each individual card seemed whole in itself; a strong, convincing work of collage art. And through all seventy-eight cards, there appeared to be a consistency, completeness. In addition, the artist spoke so lovingly of her creation, and with obvious understanding of the tarot in general. Thus, my expectations were high.
The set arrived one day by mail, by surprise - I love surprises like that! Upon opening the box, it was another great surprise to find a generously sized, black velveteen pouch with tasseled royal ribbon. What a treat! I generally tie my favorite decks with nice ribbon, and store them in my desk or a drawer. This pouch ensures the Victoria Regina deck will have a prominent place in my collection!
Although I had already seen card images online, I wanted to see how the black and white images looked, if the contrast was as sharp, the images as impressive. The images up close were indeed just as striking as I had hoped they would be.
Let's talk about the cards . Ovenall had this great idea to alter the four suits to more specifically represent the Victorian age. For Wands she chose the steel pen. With the pen we can be creative (personal essays, novels), take action (letters to Congress), share enthusiasm for ideas (journalism), and work hard to get ahead (academics). These all speak to me of Wand qualities. In the companion book, Georg Patterson and Ovenall say of the Wands, "This is the suit of creativity, of the passion and labor required to produce anything from a work of art to a good meal."
For the Swords we see an obvious choice - guns! Certainly, as pointed out in the book, by the nineteenth century, guns had replaced the sword as the "military weapon of choice." Although I don't see the mind working like a gun, in the way it might work like a sword, guns are appropriate here, and will easily symbolize the initial meanings of the cards.
One change I really enjoy is the use of Mason jars on the Cups cards. This is unique and imaginative. Mason jars remind me of my great-aunt's summer kitchen in her farmhouse in Virginia, and of my Italian grandmother and her sisters storing preserves and sauces. Whether filled with peaches or tomatoes, these jars were filled lovingly. They easily remind me of the sharing of good things, the expression of love, and the abiding wisdom of women.
And another great change, the pocket watch on the suit of Coins. I have two gold watches handed down from my Virginia ancestors (from the nineteenth century), and though they were not particularly wealthy people, watches like these were a symbol of pride for them; and a proof of hard work, determination, and making it. To quote the book, "Coins represent the material, the actual, and the real. A reading heavy with Coins could indicate concerns involving property, possessions, or money. The suit also lends itself to questions about work and craftsmanship."
I am attaching my own meanings to these suits I realize, but also demonstrating that in choosing physical counterparts to the traditional, Ovenall intuitively chose apt symbolic counterparts as well.
The court cards are an intriguing collection of famous or significant people, mainly from British royalty. These are all well designed images. For example, the Princess of Wands depicts Princess Louise, a daughter of the queen of England, who studied art. The image shows Princess Louise surrounded by female artists. The Queen of Swords is a very clever collage showing Queen Victoria attending the funeral of her husband, Prince Albert. In the foreground are the mourners at the funeral, and behind the whole scene is text that is appropriate and significant. Not every court card is a royal figure, however there are too few in my opinion that are not. I think there could have been a better balance of royal and non-royal.
The trumps, or major arcana, are generally unusual and striking. The Fool is probably one of my new favorite tarot Fools. There is something quirky about this rakish figure in rags, dancing joyously and fearlessly towards the edge of a precipice. He is immediately appealing. The Magician is a highly convincing figure, especially as he presents his pen (Wand), pocket watch (Coin), gun (Sword), and Mason jar (Cup). I love the jaunty and direct look of the Empress. Here is a woman unique in Victorian times - a woman comfortable with her sensuality, straightforward with her female sexuality . the Empress. The Chariot too, is one I love. A woman rides her tricycle through a crowded city street. She gazes at us, her expression relaxed and confident. Not only does this image have obvious symbolism (the tricycle - the chariot), but the original image of the woman on her bike was, according to the book, from a piece of writing about women's rights, which to me demonstrates very real forward movement. Anyone creeped out by clowns (like me) will love (or hate?!) the Devil. The symbolism here is that he stands laughing over a scene of horror and destruction. These are just a few cards from the deck, which is artistically and cleverly created.
Now to the book. I have some sets in which either the artwork or the book is obviously stronger. Not this set, which offers a good balance in its artwork and writing. Each feels finished and unhurried to me, both important aspects of any creative endeavor. There is also an intellectual quality to each here, which is a refreshing change from the sometimes very new age or spiritual leanings of many recent tarots. The book is very straightforward. It is intelligently written, and assumes a certain level of understanding and intelligence in its reader. This is nice. Each card receives several sections of description: Description, Interpretation, The [card] in Your Life, and Notes on Sources (some cards do not have this last section). These are well written and insightful. The book offers some good ideas for starting with the cards, as well as a selection of great, unique spreads designed for this deck. Also, the artist offers a very warm encouragement to those who would like to create their own collage deck, and suggests ways to get started. And, there is an extensive list of references in the back as well.
This is a great set, and will likely become a classic, used by many people for a long time. Only recently published, and I have already heard from a number of people that it is their favorite. Why the immediate appeal? I have only spoken for myself, but I imagine that some of the reasons I like it so heartily are the same reasons others like it as well. Or perhaps people like it simply for the fact that it is classy and elegant, straightforward and smart. I of course recommend the set, and think it would make a fine set for beginners, and those not into the more esoteric elements of tarot.
Card artwork by Sarah Ovenall
All writing and photography © N Levine - Illumination Tarot, unless otherwise noted. 1999-2020