Exhibition: Chess Sets from the Past

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on December 24, 2011

Thanks to all of you who have helped make 2011 such a good year for Enfilade. I’m taking a few days off, but postings will resume soon. Happy holidays, and I hope the next few days bring plenty of tasty food, some extra sleep, time with friends and family, and maybe even some games around a table. -CH

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From the World Chess Hall of Fame:

Chess Masterpieces: Highlights from the Dr. George and Vivian Dean Collection
World Chess Hall of Fame, St Louis, 9 September 2011 — 12 February 2012

John Style Chess Set, India
Late 18th century, polychromed ivory

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Chess Masterpieces: Highlights from the Dr. George and Vivian Dean Collection celebrates the Deans’ 50th year of collecting together and uses outstanding selected works to trace the development of the game of chess and the design of fine chess sets from the tenth to the early twentieth century. Sets come from Austria, Cambodia, China, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kashmir, Morocco, Persia, Russia, Syria, and Turkey. Among the works on display are ones owned or commissioned by Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Czar Nicolas II, and the British royal family.

Chess has been called ‘The Royal Game’ not only because it originated in such royal courts but also because, across all eras and cultures, chess sets have been created from gold, silver, ivory, gemstones, crystal, and other opulent materials by the world’s finest craftsmen. The world-renowned Fabergé, Meissen, and Wedgewood workshops and many others were eager to join ranks with generations of elite anonymous craftsmen who worked for their ruler, church, or wealthy civil patrons to craft chess sets recognized as consummate works of art.

Just as the world’s finest craftsmen devised ever-more ingenious chess set designs, chess players plotted and planned ever-more innovative and elegant styles of play. Hence, each chess set in this exhibition is shown in a famous middle game or problem position from approximately the same timeframe and locale as the set. This enables one to view the pieces as they were intended to be viewed – in play, with the visual beauties of the designs complimented by the strategic brilliancies of the games. Hopefully, looking at pieces in the middle of a period game will bring one a step closer to the original experience of both the chess set and chess play of the time. These games were researched by curator Larry List with the help of chess scholar Myron Samsin of the Ken Whyld Association and noted chess teacher and author, Fred Wilson.

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Information on the John style set pictured above, from the exhibition checklist:

The theme of this style set is the opposition of native Indian troops to the John Company soldiers (often British mercenaries). These soldiers enforced the English control of Indian provinces and guarded the lucrative trade of the British East India Company. Such highly detailed decorative sets were made for display, not play. They were bought from skilled carvers in Berhampur by the British soldiers and traders as mementoes of their time in India serving the Crown. This prime example of the figurative polychromed designs uses the earliest Indian chess color scheme— red vs. green, with red-suited Brits facing off with green-clothed Indians.

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