Myriorama cards are slices of landscape paintings that can be arranged in any order to form continuous scenes. They were invented in the early 19th century by the French artist, Jean-Pierre Brès, as a genteel amusement and an aid to practice drawing composition.
I first heard Sir Philip Pullman recommend them for writing inspiration in his BBC Imagine interview. They also make an appearance in The Secret Commonwealth! Since I couldn’t find a set to purchase, I did what I usually do: I printed my own. This isn’t the same set that Sir Philip uses (his set has 24 cards according to this article), but it was the only one that I could find available in high resolution. It was digitised, appropriately enough, by the Bodleian Library. The illustrator is John Heaviside Clark. The date is 1824. Here is the original. There are a few other myrioramas in the collection, but they’re either incomplete, or too small to be printed:
This particular set was the first myriorama available in Britain, commissioned by publisher Samuel Leigh. The cards form a rural seaside landscape, with picturesque ruins, thatched cottages, fields, islands, and a lighthouse (flying the Union Jack). Figures in Regency attire are depicted in various activities. There’s a beautiful balance and rhythm to the pictures, and a surprising amount of narrative and descriptive potential, when one looks closely.
There are 16 cards in total, 8 with people, and 8 without. In his advertisement, Leigh boasts that this would allow the player to create an astonishing, 20,922,789,999,000 different scene combinations!
One of Leigh’s innovations was to number each card, allowing you to remember and recreate scenes. If you have difficulty reading the numbers, you can refer to the image files, which are in order.
I recommend taking the files down to your local copy shop to be printed. I asked for mine on heavy, textured cardstock (300gr). The images should be printed at A4 or US Letter sizes WITHOUT being resized (unless you want them to be smaller).
I’ve included an optional design for the back of the cards. The background is larger than the page of cards, and if you ensure that all of the images are centred on the page, then you should have plenty of margin for printer movements.
The saturation will depend on the printer and paper you use. The images also look nice in black and white.
Create a Story with Your Myriorama Cards
These Myriorama cards are way more fun than I’d anticipated! Everyone I’ve shown them to becomes instantly absorbed in putting them in some sort of pleasing order.
They’re also an excellent tool for observation, and if you’re a writer, you can use them to practice your descriptive skills.
I created this 2-page worksheet to help you explore the landscape in your Myriorama cards, and to then create a story with them.
To celebrate the launch of The Secret Commonwealth, I thought I would share this deck of alethiometer cards I created. As alethiometers are even rarer in our world than in Lyra’s, I hope these cards can help you hone your skills in their stead.
I recommend taking the PDF file down to your local copy shop and asking them to print the pages double-sided on thick card. They may even be able to cut them apart roughly for you, but you’ll probably need to finish them off at home.
Once you’ve cut your cards to size, you might like to use a dye-based inkpad to colour the edges of your cards. Try the colour out on a scrap of paper first. Gold acrylic paint would also look lovely, but make sure you clamp the cards tightly together, and cover the front and back of the deck so you don’t get paint on the face of the cards.
To assemble the box, I recommend using a glue stick. Double-sided tape is very strong, and convenient, but if your folds are slightly off, and the tape remains exposed, it will stick to everything. Forever. Wet glue is also not ideal, as it might cause the card to buckle.
The alethiometer was invented in Lyra Silvertongue’s world by a scholar named Pavel Khunrath. Our world’s Heinrich Khunrath was an alchemist; unlike his parallel-world counterpart, he neither invented a truth-telling instrument, nor was he burned at the stake, but he did publish a text titled, The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom, of which Frances Yates writes:
“Except in the title, the word ‘Amphitheatre’ does not occur in the work, and one can only suppose that Khunrath may have had in mind in this title some thought of an occult memory system through which he was visually presenting his ideas.”
However, our world’s Giordano Bruno more closely matches Pavel Khunrath’s career. Bruno was a 16th-century occultist who was eventually tortured and burned at the stake by the Inquisition, and although he doesn’t seem to have developed a memory theatre, as other mnemonists had done, he did create an interesting memory wheel that worked by combination and in this sense bears some resemblance to the alethiometer.