Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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Jean-Pierre Seguin: Obituary: Paul Marteau (1885-1966)

Translator’s Introduction

The figure of Paul Marteau presents something of a paradox: although the name is known to almost every amateur of the Marseilles Tarot, the man himself remains completely unknown. To date, there has been but one comprehensive study of the man, his life, and his work, that by Gwenael Beuchet, ‘Paul Marteau, auteur et éditeur de l’Ancien Tarot de Marseille (1930),’ in Thierry Depaulis (ed.), Actes du Colloque ‘Papiers, Images, Collections,’ 28, 29, 30 avril 2000, Le Vieux Papier n° 358 (October 2000), pp. 31-40. Even the otherwise thorough book by Decker and Dummett, A History of the Occult Tarot, (Duckworth, 2002, pages 302-303) glosses over this important figure and his major contribution to the Tarot. The present series of book reviews and texts seeks to redress this oversight, and in that perspective, we present here Marteau’s obituary by Jean-Pierre Seguin, the only one we are aware of. The “great writer in distress” alluded to below is none other than Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose odd relationship with Marteau – and indeed, with the Tarot itself – remains to be elucidated more thoroughly.

Marteau’s donation to the Bibliothèque nationale, mentioned below, followed that of his uncle, thereby providing the library with a significant collection of playing cards, prints, books, woodblocks and other memorabilia. Yet a number of items were later sold after his death, including his manuscripts and letters from Céline, by the Parisian auction house Drouot in 1979, which had earlier sold part of Marteau’s collection of books in 1934. The elder Marteau’s 1909 donation consisted of “856 feuillets [i.e. cards] belonging to 382 antique or modern decks; 132 types of tarot papers; 30 reproductions of antique cards; 95 prints related to the game of cards; 69 decrees, laws, edicts…; 115 books related to the game of cards.” Later, Henry-René D’Allemagne would also donate close to 7,000 cards, while the younger Marteau’s collection would comprise of 458 decks of cards, 25 woodblocks and 165 books. For further details, one may consult the exhibition catalogue drawn up by Jean-Pierre Seguin, as well as a detailed article by Jude Talbot.

To put paid to one particularly tenacious rumour, relayed by the Bibliothèque nationale itself, Paul Marteau was not an Officer of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest order of merit. This mistaken attribution stems from a homonym and close contemporary, yet simple verification on the database of the Grand Chancellory of the Order reveals the source of the confusion: his namesake, one Paul Edouard Marteau (1895-1960), a veterinarian surgeon and captain of the reserve, was decorated in 1949. Likewise, we have found no evidence that Marteau ever studied philosophy in Leipzig.

This obituary appeared in the Bulletin de la Société archéologique, historique & artistique le Vieux papier, tome 25, 1967, and the original may be read here. Marteau passed away in early December of 1966. The author, Jean-Pierre Seguin, was an art historian and senior librarian, curator of the Prints and Photography department of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.


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Paul Marteau (1885-1966)

Jean-Pierre Seguin

Reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.

Paul Marteau died too soon to have been able to attend the inauguration, at the Bibliothèque nationale, of the exhibition of the most beautiful or most curious pieces of the collection of playing cards he donated in May 1966. He would have loved so much to have seen all the interest that, for six weeks, a host of friends, collectors, and strangers had for this unique set, which had been one of the passions of his life.

Paul Marteau, the last traditional master-cardmaker – such was the title he proudly gave himself – was the grand-nephew of Baptiste-Paul Grimaud, who in 1858 founded a House that remains famous, the son of Léo Marteau (1848-1920), master-cardmaker in Paris, and nephew of Georges Marteau (1851-1916), he too master-cardmaker and a great collector, who donated important collections of Far Eastern art objects to the Museum of Decorative Arts and of playing cards to the Bibliothèque nationale.

Paul Marteau was passionate about his work. He had the ambition – and he managed to achieve it – to maintain the high quality of the French playing card which had guaranteed it the first place in the international market. He was also fascinated by the esoteric aspect of the cards.

On his estate at Fleurière, in Cannes, planted with millennial trees and decorated with the flowers he loved, overlooking a magnificent view, he lived out his last years in the perfect communion of ideas and of sentiments with Madame Marteau. Without any illusions as to his health, peacefully and with a smile, he did not eschew any of the joys that were still allowed him.

He was a cultured man, of an exquisite politeness, of a smiling indulgence for those trifling flaws of character, but who did not tolerate mediocrity or nastiness. He was generous, without ulterior motives, and with the most perfect discretion. One day, we will know of the support he gave to one of our great writers in distress. His gesture in favour of the Cabinet des Estampes shows how much he knew how to let go, without regrets, of what he had loved so much for the benefit of others.

— Jean-Pierre SEGUIN

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