‘To see where old wooden pieces have been handled is magic’
From Wonderland to Hogwarts, the battle between pawns, knights and kings has raged for centuries. Matthew Dennison discovers how chess won a place in British culture
IN 1849, an ivory turner, a magazine editor and a former Shakespearean actor collaborated in the creation of an iconic piece of British design: the Staunton chess set. Simple, well balanced and practical, the surprisingly modern design quickly achieved widespread popularity, thanks in part to well-publicised celebrity endorsement and some determined selfpromotion on the part of the man who lent it his name.
It remains the world’s standard chess set. ‘To pick up an old wooden Staunton-pattern set, to feel the surface, admire the workmanship and see where, over the years, pieces have been handled is magic,’ enthuses collector David Harris. Former actor Howard Staunton, as the
Morning Chronicle told its readers, was a ‘well-known Chess-player’. He was also owner and editor of monthly magazine Chess Player’s Chronicle, the chess columnist of
the Illustrated London News and the author of Chess-player’s Handbook, Chessplayer’s Companion and Chess-player’s Text Book.
His collaboration with John Jaques, who manufactured the newly designed chess sets in packaging marked with a facsimile of Staunton’s signature, probably came about through Jaques’s brother-in-law Nathaniel Cook, who was Staunton’s editor at the Illustrated London News.
Today, the Jaques company is chiefly associated with croquet sets, but its early output extended to false teeth made from hippopotamus ivory, so its skills in the carving and turning of hardwoods, ivory and bone were ideally suited it to manufacturing chess sets. With sound commercial instincts, it produced them both in wood and ivory, the latter traditionally a luxurious alternative to fruitwood, boxwood and rosewood and one that permitted particularly crisp, carved or engine-turned detailing.
Credited with the design of the set, Cook took his inspiration from a variety of sources. It’s been suggested that Staunton-pattern pawns derive from the bulbous outline of architectural balusters and the distinctive horse’s head of the knight mimics that of the horses drawing Selene’s chariot on carvings from the east pediment of the Parthenon, removed by Lord Elgin to the British Museum.
Undoubtedly, he was also influenced by preexisting patterns, including British designs
‘To pick up an old wooden set and see where pieces have been handled is magic’
manufactured by ivory turners George Merrifield and Samuel Fisher, games-makers Thomas and William Lund of 24, Fleet Street and, until 1840, the Lunds’ near neighbours John Calvert and his widow, Dorothy, whose premises were at 189, Fleet Street.
The success of the Staunton pattern standardised British chess-piece design in the middle of the 19th century. Sets previously produced by Merrifield, Fisher, Lund and Calvert demonstrated, nevertheless, a degree of homogeneity, with their etiolated forms, split bishops’ mitres and distinctive turnedring decoration. The Edinburgh or Northern upright pattern, possibly perfected by Lord John Hay in the 1830s, also shaped Cook’s designs, as did the popular St George pattern named after London’s St George’s Chess Club. A caricature of 1802 by Charles Williams,
A game at chess, presents the failure of British envoy Lord Cornwallis to negotiate terms favourable to Britain in the peace of Amiens as a chess game between Cornwallis and Napoleon. ‘Check to your King,’ Napoleon tells the diplomat. ‘A very few Manoeuvres more will completely convince you that I am better acquainted with the Game I am playing than you are aware of.’
Cornwallis’s king is the sole white piece remaining in the game. In form, with its distinctive Maltese cross and ring-turned decoration, it includes elements retained by Cook and demonstrates the extent to which Staunton figures simplified earlier designs.
For more than a millennium, chess-style games had been played in India, Asia and the Middle East, using pieces that varied in appearance, material, size and costliness. German chess grandmaster Lothar Schmid —until his death, in 2013, the owner of the world’s largest private chess library of 50,000 volumes—assembled a collection of pieces that included examples in rock crystal, ivory and stone, carved as early as the 9th century in locations from central Asia to Egypt.
Among the best-known depictions of a chess game is Renaissance portraitist Sofonisba Anguissola’s painting of her three sisters surrounding a wooden board, on which knights and pawns closely resemble Staunton-style pieces, but others are distinctively different.
The Illustrated London News praised Cook’s designs for their ‘elegance and solidity’; it claimed they were ‘fashioned with convenience to the hand’ and demonstrated ‘practical utility’. Critically, Staunton pieces, unlike many of their predecessors, didn’t fall over, ‘the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets’. As Dr Harris comments: ‘All the pieces are of the right proportions and balance. The Golden Ratio applies to a Staunton pattern chess set as much as it does to good architectural design.’
One London paper remarked that ‘those who have been in the habit of playing the game will remember the awkward and inelegant structure of the generality of the shapes which have been in vogue’ and, in a verdict incomprehensible to today’s collectors of early examples, announced that ‘no artistic feeling until now has ever been brought to bear upon the formation of a pattern which should satisfy the eye both on the score of elegance and propriety’.
By standardising the form of each piece, Cook made his king, queen, bishop, knight, rook and pawn instantly recognisable to the most novice player. ‘A guiding principle,’
The Times commented, ‘has been to give by their form a signification to the various Pieces—thus the King is represented by a crown, the Queen by a coronet, etc.’
Happily, despite the success of the Staunton set, makers’ creativity and invent-
iveness survive. On October 30, 1783, sculptor John Flaxman submitted a bill to Josiah Wedgwood for designs for classically inspired chess figures, to be manufactured in the company’s distinctive jasperware in a range of colours, and ceramic sets have continued to be created at intervals across the world, inspired by themes as diverse as dinosaurs and The Lord of the Rings.
Makers have embraced patriotic themes, with French sets, for example, depicting French versus Turkish troops or Napoleonic armies (with Napoleon as both kings). Some ivory sets manufactured in Dieppe evoked Crusades-style medieval conflicts between Christians and infidels.
As Jaques predicted, sets have often served as status symbols. Last autumn, an antiques shop in New Orleans offered for sale one of recent manufacture, inspired by a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. Each gold figure was decorated with coloured enamels and highlighted with semi-precious stones. The board was a tessellation of malachite and pink rhodonite and this glittering bibelot carried a price tag of $1.65 million (£1.34 million).
Less costly, but equally striking, was the Man Ray-designed set belonging to David Bowie, sold by Sotheby’s last November. For one chess-mad eight year old, Leo Rubinstein, Man Ray’s Modernist redesign was the acme of desirability. ‘I wish I had one as cool as that,’ commented Master Rubinstein.
Aficionados have their preferred designs and materials, yet, almost two centuries after its creation, the Staunton chess set remains ubiquitous and greatly loved. For the 2013 World Chess Candidates Tournament in London, it underwent a subtle updating by Daniel Weil of the design consultancy Pentagram, this sleek vision adding another layer to the iconography of the ancient game, refreshing previous innovations, but without negating one jot of its predecessors’ charms.
‘Cook’s designs were praised for their “elegance and solidity”’
Above: Bobby Fischer considers the board on the way to the 1972 World Championship, played against Boris Spassky in Reykjavík. He won 12½ to 8½, but refused to defend his title in 1975. Below: The familiar, elegant pieces of the Staunton set