Luke Honey | Decorative Antiques, Chess, Backgammon & Games

Chess and the Elgin Marbles

May 09, 2013

If you start thinking about the great design classics over history, which one immediately springs to mind?  The Coca-Cola Bottle?  The Paper-Clip?  The Citroen 2CV?  The Supermarine Spitfire?  There's also another, lesser-known, one to add to the list. The Staunton Chess Set. The design was first patented on the 1st March 1849 by one Nathaniel Cook- for manufacture by the old firm of John Jaques of London (founded by Thomas Jaques in 1795). Jaques hit upon the brilliant idea of using the famous chess player, Howard Staunton, to endorse the new set; an early example of celebrity marketing, similar, say, in the way today that a famous television chef might lend his name to a range of saucepans.

The new design also simplified and stylised the chess men, making them more suitable for tournament play. Kings are topped with regal crowns, bishops have simple mitres, rooks are solid turrets which can be pushed decisively across a board (the chessmen just feel right in the hand). There's also a theory that the pawns were inspired by the Freemason's ball and compass. This may or may not be the case. But the knights are clearly inspired by the fashionable Neo-Classical Grecian styles of the nineteenth century, with the carved horse's heads of the knights showing a intriguing similarity to the beautiful Selene horses from the Elgin Marbles. The Elgin Marbles are fragments taken from the Athenian Parthenon, and first brought back to the British Museum  in 1801 to 1812 by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. Selene is the Greek moon goddess; she drives a horse-drawn chariot across the Night Sky.

The proportions of the Jaques knight were to change here-and-there over the years (I often think that you can date Jaques chess sets along the lines of fine vintage clarets) but the basic horse head design remained more-or-less the same. The Staunton knights are just itching to jump across the board, and indeed they have been doing so since 1849. However, how many players are aware that they hold a little piece of Ancient Greece in their hands?


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