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A Pictorial Guide to John Burton's The Brambles

The first thing you notice about The Brambles: A Solo (PnP) Card Game is the striking artwork the designer John Burton has selected for its illustration. As YouTube reviewer Livi said, they look like pictures from an ancient grimoire. Mysterious and somewhat sinister, many of them might very well be from some sort of demonorium or similar occult manuscript. But are they?

As soon as I got the files, I embarked on a hunt, searching the web for their provenance. I had a vague recollection of having seen two of them before, but most were unknown to me. As our readers may remember, I have done a similar image exploration of Tony Boydell's Aleph Null (PnP), and this activity is for me a rare treat. I ended up toiling away for hours to find the origin of the pictures and felt very proud for the results of my truffle hunt... only to realize the following day that John Burton has actually listed his sources in the WIP thread! (insert emoji of me feeling like an idiot).

Still, the titles alone don't tell us much, right? So I decided to write about my findings anyway, hoping you will enjoy the strangeness of these images as much as I do. The Brambles has five sets of images, each with a distinct colour added to the original engravings by Burton, plus 3 'Seers' cards, as well as a number of hex tiles which represent the game's enemies. (For an overview of the gameplay, see A deck of curiosities).


1) Red images: Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum Historia (1642)

At first glance, these look downright hellish. Scales, tails, horns, hooves... they surely are not of this world, or so we may think. Ulisse Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia -the encyclopedia of natural history they come from- doesn't separate fictional from real 'monsters'. In 13 volumes, Aldrovandi included plants, animals, fossils and minerals (specimens of which he collected in jars), but also reports and drawings of sightings of dragons, as well as mythical creatures such as centaurs, cyclops, satyrs and mermen.

These imaginary creatures are listed alongside humans suffering from hypertrichosis (werewolf syndrome). In the same section one can also find giants and dwarfs, and representations of non-European peoples. "It was all unusual to the 17th-century European reader. Aldrovandi makes no distinction between art and science or myth and reality".

2) Blue images: Jacques Callot, Grotesque dwarfs, 1622.

Jacques Callot was a 17th century French printmaker. This particular series of dwarf entertainers was made by Callot during his stay at the court of the Medici in Florence (he was appointed court artist to the Granduke). They are depicted as drinkers, musicians, cripples, duelists, dandies, and big-bellies. According to Shelley Perlove, "in Callot's time one could make fun of dwarfs, hunchbacks and cripples in the freest way and audiences were known to fully enjoy the sight of deformed dwarfs romping on stage. The age of political correctness had not yet arrived".

Wikipedia tells us that "Callot's series of Grotesque Dwarfs were to inspire Derby porcelain and other companies to create pottery figures known as 'Mansion House Dwarfs'. The title comes from a father and son who were paid to wander around the Mansion House in London wearing oversized hats that contained advertisements".

3) Green images: François Desprez, The Humorous dreams of Pantagruel, 1565.

This is a set of illustrations by the French engraver François Desprez for Rabellais' The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel. They were falsely claimed by their publisher to have been made by Rabellais himself. Rabellais' novel is a satire of the society of his time, and features two giants, Gargantua and his son, Pantagruel. The style of the narrative is humorous and occasionally vulgar, and the characters are involved in ludicrous plot lines such as this: "during a downpour, Pantagruel shelters his army with his tongue, and the narrator travels into Pantagruel's mouth".

This particular figure of Desprez's, with the nose of an elephant and the beard and ears of a man, is dressed in the robes of a Cardinal; one hand offers benedictions while the other holds a rod to punish heresy.

4) Yellow images: Andreas Friedrich (engravings by Jakob de Zetter), Emblemata Nova, 1617.

Andreas Friedrich's Emblemata Nova was an emblem book: a book of images meant to convey an idea or a moral message. Emblems usually were allegorical illustrations of proverbs, and consisted of three parts: a symbolic picture (pictura) with a motto or title (inscriptio) and an explanatory poem or epigram (subscriptio). Emblem books were popular in the 16th and 17th century, and, besides proverbs, they also communicated religious and even erotic messages.

"The images often juxtapose ordinary objects in an enigmatic way so as to offer the reader the intellectual challenge of attempting to divine all the allegorical meanings". (Let me know if you make sense of the gentleman with the wooden nose).

To understand exactly what an emblem is, let us examine this spread from the first edition of Alciato’s emblem book, Emblemata liber, published in 1531. "Left page: ‘Those who contemplate the heights come to grief’: the hunter busy aiming at his avian targets, fails to see the snake at his feet; right-page, top: ‘Washing the Ethiopian‘: don’t labor in vain, or attempt the impossible. Bottom: ‘Sometimes money must be spent to purchase safety’: a beaver bites off its own testicles in an attempt to escape its predators".

5) Salmon series: Master of the E-series Tarocchi (Tarrochi di Mantegna), 1465-67.

These graceful ladies come from the so-called Tarocchi di Mantegna. However, they were not designed by the artist Andrea Mantegna and do not form an actual tarot deck. Possibly intended as a didactic game for upper class children, "the images illustrate the hierarchy of the universe, from the lowly beggar to the celestial spheres".

"After the ten prints representing the states of man, and those of the nine Muses with their leader, Apollo - mediators between humanity and knowledge - come the ten that depict personifications of the arts and sciences. The seven traditional liberal arts have been augmented by poetry, philosophy, and theology". I am guessing that the image below shows the fall of Icarus.

6) The Seer portraits: Georg Bartisch, Ophthalmodouleia, 1583.

Now we come to the creepiest of the pictures in Burton's game, the portraits of the aptly called 'Seers'. They can be found in "the first Renaissance manuscript on ophthalmic disorders and eye surgery, published in 1583 by German physician Georg Bartisch (1535–1607), considered by many to be the father of modern ophthalmology. The work contains a total of 92 woodcuts each depicting diseases of the eye - some using an overlay technique enabling the reader to 'dissect' parts of the head or eye by lifting up a series of flaps".

"Accompanying the images is a detailed discussion of ocular diseases, surgical techniques, and instruments used, all written in Bartisch's native German rather than Latin, a highly unusual move for the time. Despite his scientific calling, Bartisch was a superstitious man, believing that astrology, magic, and witchcraft played a significant part in the causes of disease". (the picture shown above depicts a 'disease of the eye caused by witchcraft').

7) The Hex tiles: Hans Holbein, Der Totentanz, 1520.

If you read up to this point, thank you for accompanying me in this journey through Burton's amazing artwork choices. I will leave you with a short video by Foolish Fish leafing through the wonderful Totentanz book, the illustrations of which are shown on the hex tiles of The Brambles. Au revoir from me, and memento mori.

P.S. The Flux Convergence cards were added to the game after I completed this article. They come from Lorenz Stoer's Geometria et Perspectiva (1567), and you can see more of them here.


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