Victoria Regina Tarot by Sarah Ovenall; Text by Georg Patterson and Sarah Ovenall
Review by Lee A. Bursten

If you would like to purchase this book/deck set through Amazon, click here.

Readers of my reviews will know that I am not given to hyperbole. So I hope it wonít seem overblown if I say that the Victoria Regina Tarot is a significant step forward in the history of Tarot deck creation Ė in fact, it may be the most significant since the Rider-Waite-Smith and Crowley-Harris/Thoth decks.

On what do I base this grandiose statement? Simple Ė when I look through the cards, it becomes immediately apparent that this deck accomplishes what many decks have unsuccessfully attempted, which is to speak with an original and utterly unique voice, while at the same time remaining true to the spirit of the traditional archetypes.

While the Victoria Regina is a collage deck, it maintains more stylistic consistency than most collage decks, because many of the images share similar sources, i.e. British black-and-white newspaper and advertising illustrations from the Victorian era. The art on these cards is eye-catching and electrifying; after all, the original purpose of the illustrations was to catch a readerís attention. Also, in my opinion the artists who created these images were rather better at the craft of illustration than many deck artists of today. Add to this the consummate artistry of Sarah Ovenallís collage work, and the result is a truly energizing blaze of creativity.

In the past, I had made up my mind that black-and-white decks were not for me, especially after my experience with the Light and Shadow Tarot, which Iím very fond of but find myself unable to look at for longer than a few seconds at a time. I find that the Light and Shadowís black areas seem to clash with the white ones for an effect which is electric but not altogether pleasant. Perhaps the large card size of that deck contributes to the problem. The opposite, however, is true of the Victoria Regina; here the large card size perfectly suits the images. Each card has many fine lines and details which would have turned to mud if shrunk down to a smaller card. And, surprisingly enough, the multi-textured nature of these images more than makes up for the lack of color. Iím sure someone out there will attempt to color these cards, but that would be an ill-advised example of "gilding the lily," a phrase often used by the Victorians (although actually originating in Shakespeareís King John).

In many modern decks, the archetypal icons become buried in the artistís individual vision. But if you lay out the Victoria Regina Majors, their messages jump out at you. The delightful thing about this deck is that you donít have to supply your own associations to make up for an unevocative card. In this deck, everything is right there. The Magician is confident and talented; the High Priestess, mysterious; the Empress, majestic in her sensuality; and so on.

Just as an example of Ovenallís brilliance, Iíd like to take a look at Temperance. The collage has only five elements: the woman, the explosion, the wave, the night sky, and the salamander (thereís also a fish, but itís hard to discern in the scan). Like the woman on the card, Ovenall has magically combined these simple elements into a fantastical scene. The nighttime sky could symbolize the deceptively quiet moments that often precede a burst of creativity. The woman seems confident, like the Magician, but unlike him she seems to have no self-consciousness; she simply goes about her work because thatís what she does, not because sheís out to impress anyone else. She is combining fire and water, two normally antagonistic elements. A flash of light and steam results (the flashís reflection on the woman is testament to Ovenallís genius as a collagist). But there is another, unexpected result, perhaps unseen by the woman Ė a salamander emerges from the wave, perhaps suggesting the emergence of a creative endeavor as a living entity, derivative yet in some strange way distinct from the sensibilities of the artist. This image actually suggests Crowleyís Temperance card, which he renamed Art, rather than the more traditional woman pouring liquid between two cups.

As Patterson and Ovenall point out in the well-written accompanying book, the Victoria Regina Companion, the Victorian era makes a very appropriate setting for a Tarot deck, because this was the milieu of the creators of both the R-W-S and Crowley decks, and of the Golden Dawn tradition from which these two decks drew their inspiration. Ovenall also takes the opportunity to comment on sociological trends prevalent at the time. Some may see the inclusion of a Hindu Emperor as anachronistic, but actually he fits in very well with the Victorian theme. According to James Morris in his book Pax Britannica, in 1897 Great Britain was "the largest Empire in the history of the world, comprising nearly a quarter of the land mass of the earth, and a quarter of its population." Colonialism was perhaps the single most important element of the Victorian era, and an examination of that era would surely be incomplete without including the Queenís many subjects who were not native Britons. In fact, the entire population of the British Empire at that time was 372 million. The image also speaks to the fascination the British Victorians had for what they saw as exotic.

Besides being true to its setting, however, the inclusion of indigenous peoples in this deck provides a multi-culturalism which will be welcome to the modern reader.

For the Minor Arcana, Ovenall has replaced the standard suits with pens, guns, clocks, and Mason jars, but only in the images; for the card titles, the traditional Wands, Swords, Coins and Cups remain. In the book, the authors make their case for their suit symbols being the Victorian versions of the traditional suits. The use of guns for Swords may strike some as adding a violent character to the deck. It may be that in the 21st century we are desensitized to the sword as a weapon, and tend to see it as either a plot device for fairy-tales or else as a ritualized object. Of course, the swordís main purpose has always been as a weapon, the point (so to speak) being to puncture oneís adversary. The gun makes a perfectly reasonable Victorian substitute. And while the cutting edge of the sword makes it suitable as a symbol for the discriminating qualities of the mind, the gun as a device built for destruction is an excellent analogy for the dual-edged quality of technology, which, along with colonialism, was another important part of the Victorian world.

Despite the newness of the suit symbols, they are used in the images just as if they were the traditional ones. This lends a dreamlike, somewhat hallucinatory atmosphere to the deck. For example, in the Ten of Swords, ten guns are stuck into the back of a prostrate figure, as if they were swords.

The new suit symbols also have some very exciting implications for intuitive readings. In the Six of Coins, for example, a woman in a sleigh hands out clocks to some beggars. This could show the traditional meaning of benevolence or dependence, but it might also mean that someone is giving you more time to do something.

Although the Minors show scenes which are mostly derived from the Rider-Waite, I also sense an influence from the Crowley deck. Many of the cards use machinery or ironwork to create a semi-abstract background which suggests the abstractness of the Crowley Minors.

As Diane Wilkes mentions in her review, there are many details in the cards which arenít stated in the book. To pick one just as an example, in the Princess of Swords, an 11-year-old Victoria reads a book with a gun in her hand. But she is not holding the gun correctly; instead, she grasps it by the trigger, making it highly likely that she will shoot herself in the foot rather than hit her target. This could easily stand for the impetuous qualities of the Page or Princess of Swords. As another example, the background for the aforementioned Emperor shows a stone archway, decorated with stone branches and leaves. This could suggest that the ideal Emperor honors the natural world, or, negatively, that he seeks to ossify it under the patina of civilization.

Although this isnít mentioned in the book, the Court cards are faithful to a tradition in antique playing cards of portraying historical personages. Ovenall and Patterson have done an excellent job of matching these larger-than-life figures with their Tarot Court counterparts. I particularly liked Oscar Wilde as the Prince of Wands and Benjamin Disraeli as the King of Wands.

The accompanying book is excellent. It describes the context for the cards, and will satisfy the curiosity of anyone who is interested in what life was like for the people who originally drew these images and for those who originally viewed them. Itís also a very user-friendly book, and it does something that I have frequently wished other Tarot authors would do, which is to include a sample reading with the deck, in this case by Valerie Sim, who also created the spread used in the sample reading. However, itís important to note that using this deck does not require one to learn a whole new system. In fact, one could easily read with the deck without consulting the book at all, although I think one would be missing a lot by doing so.

Of course, the most important consideration for any deck (at least for me) is whether one can read with it. The answer is a resounding Yes. This is a wonderful reading deck. When you lay out a spread, the cards seem to magically link together; itís almost as if the machinery and ironwork which comprises the background of many of the cards locks together with an audible "click," solidifying the stories thus captured into a new and exciting scenario.

I really must congratulate the folks at Llewellyn; theyíve outdone themselves with the packaging and presentation of this deck. The black-and-white printing is excellent, and the designer of the book and package cover, Lisa Novak, has done a great job of being faithful to the black-and-white look of the deck while introducing a few understated colors. Itís really very attractive. Best of all, included with the book and the deck is a cloth bag for the cards, which is black (or very dark blue) velvet on the outside and a blue silk-type material on the inside. This is a perfect Tarot bag. Itís large enough for the deck, and it has a tasseled drawstring which cinches tight when you pull it, so the bag stays closed. The Llewellyn moon logo is discreetly placed towards the top of the inside of the bag, so that someone you were reading for wouldnít even notice it. Ovenallís website provides some suggestions for hand-decorating the bag.

The overall package is very reasonably priced at $34.95, considering that this is what Llewellyn charges for their other deck/book sets which donít include a bag, as well as the fact that the bag is being sold separately for around $13.

I think this deck is an instant classic and will remain that way for a long, long time.

Victoria Regina Tarot by Sarah Ovenall; Text by Georg Patterson and Sarah Ovenall
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 1-56718-531-2

You can see a sample reading with this deck here.

If you would like to purchase this book/deck set through Amazon, click here.

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Images and excerpts © 2002 Llewellyn Publishing
Review © 2002 Lee Bursten
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes