‘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

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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

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