The Collector: 189 Fleet St., an Important Address in Chess History
ByJon CrumillerMar 20 — 1:31 AM
Image by Jonathan Crumiller
For several decades at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, the most influential chess set designers in the world operated out of a store at 189 Fleet St., in London.
Note: This monthly column, which normally would have been published around the first of the month, was delayed because of the Candidates tournament.
In London in 1790, the chess scene was on the upswing. François André Danican Philidor, who was elderly at this point, was giving blindfold simultaneous exhibitions at Parsloe’s Coffee House on St. James’ Street. Other chess clubs had sprung up as well, and several chess set designs had become preeminent: the Old English pattern, the Washington pattern, and the Directoire/Régence pattern from the French side of the channel.
Meanwhile, over at 189 Fleet Street, a young ivory turner and game manufacturer named John Calvert, age 28, has just opened his shop for business. He and his wife, later his widow, Dorothy Calvert, would become possibly the most influential manufacturers of chess sets in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
There are two chess set patterns that are directly attributable to John Calvert. The first is shown here:
This set was made circa 1820. The pieces are immediately recognizable to any chess player. It is possible to imagine using this set today to play a casual game. The similarities with the Staunton pattern are clear enough, and a player might even mistake this type of set for a Staunton-pattern variant, yet the Staunton design would not exist for another thirty years!
Here are several other Calvert sets of the same pattern:
Calvert’s sets are made of either ivory or hardwood. For the wooden sets, the white pieces are boxwood, and the black pieces are usually ebony, but sometimes rosewood.
Some of Calvert’s sets were stamped with a name and address, CALVERT 189 FLEET ST™. Ivory sets are stamped on top of the rooks (often the white rooks, but occasionally the red rooks) and the wooden sets are stamped on the bottom of the rooks, as can be seen in the following photos.
The latter set is displayed on an early 19th century tilt-top chessboard made of papier mâché and mother-of-pearl. With antique chess sets, it is important to match a set with an attractive chessboard of the same time period. (Antique chessboards will be the subject of a future column.)
The following photograph shows another Calvert-pattern set, in ivory, which has also been stamped on top of the white rooks.
While the preceding examples are perhaps the best-known Calvert pattern, there is one other that is also attributed to Calvert:
The defining characteristics of this set are the fancy galleries on the kings and queens. It seems logical and probable that these galleries were an evolutionary step from earlier English “spike” sets, and prior to that, the Selenus-pattern galleried kings and queens, as discussed in my January 2016 article.
Here is another Calvert-produced set in this same style:
This pattern was also produced by William Lund and George Merrifield, two important chess manufacturers in 19th century London, but John Calvert’s sets preceded theirs, and his work proved to be a major influence – possibly the primary influence – for both Lund and Merrifield.
I believe that both Calvert patterns can be approximately dated to the period 1800 to 1820. In an earlier column, we had examined a method of dating chess sets by their appearance in artwork; for sets such as these, that are directly attributable to a manufacturer, a much more straightforward and effective method is to study the historical records of the time, in order to recreate the important dates in a person’s life. My research of John and Dorothy Calvert has led to sources such as the London Directories (trade/commercial directories of that era), newspaper advertisements and articles, and a treasure trove of Calvert family handwritten papers and documents in the London Metropolitan Archives.
John Calvert opened his shop at 189 Fleet Street in 1790, and the Calvert business stayed at that same location for its duration. Calvert manufactured games, toiletries, and other household items, and sold them from his storefront. In my collection, there is a popular chess book of the day, Practical Chess Grammar by W.S. Kenny, published in London, 1817. On the inside cover is a trade label:
Calvert was one of the first manufacturers to explicitly list chess men and boards as one of his primary products. Per the label:
WORKER IN IVORY, TORTOISE SHELL, &c.
189 FLEET STREET
Manufacturer of Boards and Men
For Chess, Backgammon, Draughts, Pope-Joan, Cribbage, &c.
Cues and Maces
Pool-Trays, Fish, Counters, &c.
SHEET IVORY FOR PAINTING IN MINIATURE
Green Bowls and Jacks.
Calvert’s business was stable and steady, and he was able to support his growing family throughout the first two decades of the 19th century. In 1819, he was bestowed with membership in the prestigious position of Master of the Worshipful Company of Turners. (The Worshipful Company of Turners is still a vibrant organization, with a four-hundred-year history of supporting London turners and the craft of turning, i.e., shaping and forming product materials on a lathe.)
Things took a bad turn for the Calvert family, per the following notice in The Times of January 29, 1822.
The Times Archive
Calvert was buried in the churchyard at St. Dunstan in the West, only a few doors down the street from his house.
Thus ended the era of John Calvert, covering the period 1790-1822, but the business continued under his widow, Dorothy, who immediately took over the shop and advertised her intentions to carry on in the Evangelical Magazine of April, 1822:
The Times Archive
As manufacturers of games and household goods, it might not seem that the Calverts’ social circles would extend to the highest levels of society, yet that was indeed the case. A long-time friend of Dorothy Calvert’s was the blind Princess Sophia, daughter of King George III and Queen Charlotte, and their business patrons included other royalty as well, such as Princess Victoria and the Duchess of Kent. Dorothy Calvert also spoke fluent French, per an advertisement for her tutoring and childcare services in the Sept. 7, 1818, issue of The Times.
The chess sets sold during Dorothy’s era were of equally high quality as those made by John, though probably made by hired craftsmen rather than by Dorothy herself. One of my Dorothy Calvert sets was acquired with its original box, which is both stamped and trade-labeled:
This set can be dated to the mid-1820s from the trade label, which is actually John Calvert’s (as pictured earlier in this article), but with the additional words printed above his name:
D. CALVERT, WIDOW OF THE LATE
Note that the set is actually fancier than the standard Calvert pattern. The queen’s finial and king’s Maltese cross are features usually associated with other chess manufacturers, such as William Lund from 1835 onwards, but the dating of this set shows that the Calverts (or at least Dorothy) had included these features earlier than others.
This set also highlights a very important technique that can provide evidence to help associate antique sets with specific manufacturers: comparing similarly carved knight-heads from different sets. Note that all other chess pieces in playing sets were turned on a lathe, but the knight-heads needed to be carved. By noting the specific carving of knight-heads, it is sometimes possible to associate an antique set with a specific manufacturer (with the assumption that the knight-head carver worked for that same manufacturer; other corroborating evidence also helps pinpoint the association.)
As an example of how this works, here is another set in my collection. This set is even fancier, but it is still a playing set intended for use, as were all of the Calverts’ chess sets.
A side-by-side comparison of a knight from this set and a knight from the Dorothy Calvert box-labeled set shows how similar the knight-heads are:
It is almost certain that these knight-heads were carved by the same person. This comparison, along with other features from the set, leads to the conclusion that this set was, in all likelihood, produced in Dorothy Calvert’s workshop.
Another highly similar knight-head, as well as similarities between Calvert sets and other pieces in this next set in my collection, leads to the same conclusion:
The black pieces in this set must have been restained at some point in the 20th century, because black stain was used very rarely in the 19th century.
After the death of her husband, Dorothy Calvert quickly established herself in the business, and listings in the London Directories and elsewhere switched from John Calvert to Dorothy Calvert, starting in 1823. After using up John Calvert’s trade labels, she printed and distributed her own:
Dorothy Calvert not only continued her husband’s business, she expanded it to include many other types of household items.
Dorothy Calvert continued the business through the 1820’s and 1830’s. In 1838, after nearly 50 years of chess set manufacture in the Calvert workshop, Dorothy put the premises up for sale, as shown by this article in The Times of October 5, 1838:
The Times Archive
Dorothy was probably no longer selling chess sets at that point, per an advertisement in The Times, dated July 24, 1835, in which she indicates that she is selling off her stock of chess men and boards:
The Times Archive
Based on this collective information, even without taking into account the features of the chess sets themselves, we can accurately date the sets of John and Dorothy Calvert to the following time periods:
John Calvert: 1790-1822
Dorothy Calvert: 1822-1835
Now let’s consider the influence of the Calverts on several of the other chess manufacturers of the time. A first thing to note is that their shop was double-fronted, per the 1838 advertisement, so the chess sets (and other goods) were displayed in the storefront window, for prospective customers to see. It was also visible to other chess set makers as, for example, William Lund.
Lund first appears in the London Directories in 1835, at 24 Fleet Street. He had taken over from William Anderson, a cutler and razor-maker at that address, and under whom he had apprenticed. William Lund’s father, Thomas, had a business at 57 Cornhill, and also manufactured chess sets.
While researching the chess manufacturers of the 18th and 19th centuries in London, I located various Victorian maps of the time, and then homed in on the placement of addresses using the London Directories and modern-day geocoding. While pinpointing the locations of the Calvert workshop (189 Fleet Street) and William Lund’s shop (24 Fleet Street), a major surprise awaited: due to the wrap-around of street numbering on Fleet Street, those two locations are almost directly across the street from each other! This finding was confirmed by the Tallis Street Views of 1840:
Tallis’ Street Views of London, published in 1840
It is apparent that William Lund saw the chess sets in the window of the Calvert workshop every day. As the prior advertisement shows, Dorothy Calvert sold off her stock of chessmen and boards in 1835, the year that William Lund first appears in the London Directories. It is possible, even probable, that Lund acquired much of Dorothy Calvert’s stock of chessmen and boards. In any case, it is clear that the Calverts’ influence on William Lund’s chess manufacturing was direct and significant. Here is a Lund-stamped set from my collection, in the Calvert galleried style (the inset photo shows the Lund stamp on the bottom of the white King) :
It is clearly a Calvert galleried pattern set, augmented by many features that experts recognize as Lund attributes, e.g. the elevated rooks and the classic Lund-style knight-heads.
The connection to George Merrifield is even more direct. Per the records of The Company of Worshipful Turners, George Merrifield apprenticed in John Calvert’s workshop in 1807. Later he went out on his own, and produced many chess sets, but one of his standard products should now be immediately recognizable:
It is, of course, a Calvert galleried-pattern set, with what experts can immediately recognize as classic Merrifield-carved knight-heads. Future columns we will look more closely at the contributions of Lund and Merrifield, each of whom made and sold many chess sets – always playing sets, not ornamental sets – in 19th century London.
With the highlights of the Calverts’ chess-manufacturing activities now laid out, we have the context to understand the earliest sets made in the Calvert workshop – in the period 1790 through roughly 1800.
When John Calvert first started out in the business, several types of playing sets were available in England, such as the Old English pattern, and the Washington pattern, so he manufactured those patterns as well.
It is extremely important that this particular set, as well as other similar sets that have appeared in the historical chess auctions, is stamped with the CALVERT 189 FLEET ST stamp. The reason is that we can be sure that this knight-head carver was associated with John Calvert (or was possibly John Calvert himself.) By the same token, we cannot state with confidence that any set with identical knight-heads was produced in the Calvert workshop, because a knight-head carver could have worked for various chess set manufacturers. It does allow us, however, to closely compare the carved knight-heads of known Calvert sets with the knight-heads of other unattributed sets, and to speculate about the origin of those unattributed sets.
These knight-heads show uncanny similarities, especially when closely inspected by hand.
The left-most knight is from the stamped Calvert set shown above, so we know that it was associated with a Calvert-produced set. (This evidence is bolstered by other similar sets, with these same knight-heads, that have the Calvert stamp.)
The middle knight is from this next set, with its now-familiar pattern:
That’s right – it’s a Calvert galleried pattern set, with knight-heads that were carved (in all probability) by a carver that worked in (or with) the Calvert workshop. Therefore I believe that this set was produced in the 1790’s by John Calvert and his workshop.
The right-most knight also has a strong resemblance to the other two knights, although we cannot be 100% sure that the carver was the same person. That knight belongs to a very rare 18th century English wooden playing set. Such sets will be examined in a future column, leaving until then any speculation regarding attribution of that set to a particular manufacturer.
There are also Calvert-stamped sets with knights that are similar, but not identical. Several of those sets appear in historical auction catalogs. I have one such set, albeit unstamped:
Based on near-identical Calvert-stamped sets in other historical chess auction catalogs, as well as the features of this set, it is certain that this is a John Calvert-produced set. Based on the knight-head, it is also highly likely that the set was made in the 1790’s.
Thus we can draw the conclusion that in the 1790’s, i.e. the first decade of John Calvert’s chess manufacturing, he produced both types of patterns that are directly associated with his workshop. Additionally, he made sets of other patterns during that decade, including the Old English pattern and Washington pattern.
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