One of the most important questions about antique sets is their age. Jon Crumiller explains one method to find the answer.
An important question for the collector/researcher is: how can antique chess sets be accurately dated? There are several methods that can be used to “triangulate” valid date ranges for different types of sets. This column examines one effective and highly interesting method – by finding dated, documented resources, such as books, magazines, prints, and artwork that include pictorial representations of chess sets.
A typical example of this dating method is shown in a painting by renowned English artist Francis Cotes (1726-1770). The painting, from 1769, depicts Sir William Earl Welby, a British landowner, baronet, and member of Parliament, with his wife, Penelope. The portrait is highlighted by a chess set on the table.
Chess sets have been used as artistic props for centuries. Not only are they attractive and eye-catching, but their supposed connection with intellect and high-society were desirable for this type of artwork. This same theme continues to the present day: several recent movies starring fictional cerebral characters such as Sherlock Holmes and James Bond include pivotal scenes using chess as the central intellectual prop.
Looking closely at the painting, it is apparent that the chess set is a later version of the Old English pattern:
The conclusion one can draw, especially after examining several similar paintings, is that this chess set pattern existed – and was prevalent – when this artwork was created.
This dating technique can be applied in other examples as well. The next painting, circa 1880, is by P H Andreis, a Belgian artist.
Looking closely at the chess set, it is readily identifiable French Régence pattern chess set. The Régence pattern was very popular in France and surrounding countries in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The same type of set – Régence, late 19th century – in roughly the same position (legal this time, without a white pawn on the first rank) shows that the artist may have taken some liberties with visual perspective, but regardless, the smirk on the Cavalier’s face is appropriate, as white is getting completely crushed!
The following painting from the latter-1700’s was created by an Italian artist, Domenico Maria Fratto (1669-1763), and is titled, “Caissa Goddess of Chess.” Zooming in again on the chess set in the painting, shows that the pieces are busts of royal figures and are highly reminiscent of French Dieppe pieces of the same time frame.
By comparison, the following are king and queen pieces from four sets in my collection, all of which were produced by the master carvers of Dieppe, France. Corroborating evidence shows that the Dieppe ivory carvers were most active in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another example comes from Brunswick-Lüneburg, an area that is now part of northern Germany. In 1616, Augustus the Younger, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg wrote a treatise on chess, under the pseudonym Gustavus Selenus. This historical chess book includes a famous and important engraving:
The pieces can be seen quite clearly by magnifying the engraving:
The Selenus pattern has evolved over the years, but its primary features have survived, as can be seen on the kings and queens – “tiered galleries,” either three tiers (or two) for the king and two tiers (or one) for the queen.
An even older painting (1552) shows a similar Selenus-pattern set. The artist was a German painter, Hans Muelich (1516-1573).
Note the tiered kings and queens in this set as well.
Because these artworks are true-to-life, they provides reasonable evidence that this Selenus pattern was one of the common German playing set patterns in the mid 1500’s and early 1600’s.
In my opinion, the “tiered galleries” feature was inherited from a medieval pattern, and was also adopted for subsequent patterns. An illustration of this progression, using some of the chess set patterns from earlier in this article, is as follows:
I will examine progressions such as this in later articles, as well as other examples of chess sets as displayed in antiquarian books, magazines, and artwork.
This technique of dating chess sets using dated artwork can be applied on a much broader scale. I’ve compiled a database of over 600 chess-related artworks, covering over 1,000 years and over 40 countries. Not all of these artworks have readily identifiable chess sets, but many of them do, and I have been able to identify 30 well-established chess set patterns. Before looking at the overall results, it’s important to note some important caveats about attempting to date chess sets by their appearance in (and disappearance from) artworks:
— An artist can paint or draw a stylized version of a chess set that doesn’t actually exist at that time and place (“artistic license”)
— An artist can produce a scene from another country or location
— An artist can produce a scene from an earlier period in time
— There appears to be a time lag between the introduction of a chess set pattern and its appearance in artwork.
Taking all of these things into consideration, the inventory of chess-related artworks is shown in the following graphic timeline:
The earliest patterns to appear regularly in artwork are a type of medieval design and the Islamic, or Muslim, pattern. Partly because of its longevity, it is probably the most-used chess set type of set in the past millennium.
Some of the sequencing of antique chess sets is confirmed by my analysis, e.g. the French Directoire pattern preceding the Régence pattern, and the predecessors to the Staunton design appearing in artwork within the expected time frame. There are also interesting anomalies. A chess set design known as Biedermeier, allegedly corresponding to the Biedermeier period (1815-1848), does not appear in artwork until much later. In my opinion, those chess sets are not early-to-mid 19th century sets at all, but instead were used in Austrian coffeehouses in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
Another benefit of using artwork to date chess sets is that the geographical migration of patterns can also be traced. For instance, one of the Medieval patterns can be seen to migrate over the course of several centuries:
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