Antique English Playing Sets, 1750 – 1850

 

Have you ever wondered if the classic St. George pattern chess set, preceded or followed the ‘Old English’ pattern set in terms of when it was first available to chess players in the 19th Century or indeed how the two types of sets are distingished?  Hopefully this article will help. There is very little evidence to tell us,  at what precise dates in history, a particular pattern or style of set was introduced on to the market. We do know that the famous Staunton pattern was first introduced in 1849 but for the hundred-year period prior to this date there is very little precise information available about when other patterns were first introduced.

In this article therefore I’m attempting to give a brief outline of the chronological order and possible dates of introduction of the main types of English chess sets used in that period. This is based on my own experience and not of any exhaustive research on my part, but hopefully it might lead to others, with knowledge in this area, giving their input which might help in developing a more definitive position sometime into the future.

 

I have a particular fondness pre-Staunton playing sets that have been turned and carved (rather than molded metal sets etc), that what this article will focus on. When I started collecting there was not a significant price difference between a common Barleycorn set and a nice Washington set. This has changed over time but I still think pre-Staunton sets are an excellent area to specialize in and the more unusual sets are still reasonable value for money when they do come up for sale.  My bias has always been towards sets that were make from one piece of material rather than assembled from sections. These ‘monobloc’ sets were always more expensive to produce and I think feel better in the hand; there are exceptions to every rule, see set 12 below. Many of the 19th century patterns were produced in parallel so there is no clear cut-off date for any specific style.

 

Sets were made from a variety of materials. In general ivory was used for the best sets (and the most expensive). Ivory is an excellent material to carve and turn. Fine hardwoods like rosewood and ebony were also used. Generally smaller cheaper sets were made out of bone, although its actually harder to turn and carve. The vast majority of 19th century bone and ivory English sets are natural and red stained. Natural and black stain is more common in the 18th century. Today in the market  ivory and fine hardwood sets are generally the most desirable, the larger sets (4 inchs+) are worth considerbly more than the regular 3.5 inch sets and smaller. That said, being a collector means seeing past the material or size of a set in specific cases.

 

Outlined below are a cross section of English sets covering the period 1750 to 1850.

 

1.     Here is what I will call a English Slope set (circa 1750), because of the unusual form of the kinghts heads cut aslope, also note the round foot base edges and the bishops mitre which is very straight and narrow. What I look for in these sets in strong turning on the kings and queens, a variety of almost unrelated turning designs seems to have been used on kings and queens for this date. Sets of this age vary considerable in appearance, I have never seen two identical sets. The pawns on this set are not quite the form I would expect – they look a little later – but they appear to have always been with the set. Generally very few early wooden sets still exist, possibly because  wooden chess pieces easily ended up in a fireplace !



2.     Here is what I will call a precursor to a “Washington” style set (circa 1770). Each chess piece is made from separate pieces threaded together except for the rooks. Note the turned-over knight’s head and the way the upper gallery of the rook points outwards.



3.     Here is more classical Washington set (circa 1780), so called because George Washington had a similar set. These are very attractive sets and this pattern is pretty consistent from one set to other. These are still available and are well worth having an example of. Given the  fine design and date of theses sets they still appear undervalued compared with 19th century sets. Note the ploychromed brick work on the rooks and the urn shape  mid sections of the bishops,  pawns and upper sections of the king and queen.



4.     Here is a interesting monobloc (pieces carved and turned form the one piece of material) English set which I call Early English pattern  circa 1780. These sets are turned and polished. Some people in the past  have said that these sets were made in India for the English market. I disagree with this. The ivory is African and the kings look pure English in form to me. When the India  produced “copies” they always seem to bring some of there own decoration to the sets. I think the form of this set and the ribbing on the kings and queens is a precursor to the later form known as  Lund.



5.     Here a Old English pattern set circa 1810 onwards. This form again has pieces made from one piece of material. The large example below is made from rosewood and the other side is made from fruitwood.  The quality of the knights on many sets point to the quality of the set overall. As the knights heads had a to be carved rather than turned an expert carver was needed to produce good consistent results.


6.     Here is another Old English set this one signed Calvert. These sets are similar but the bishops stems are quite different. One of the nice things about sets from this period is that even two examples of the same style can have their own unique character. The set below is signed Calvert on the underside of the king. Note signed sets are worth considerable more than unsigned sets but I personally think the quality of the set should speak for itself and not the signature.



7.     Here is a relatively common pattern called St. George (circa 1830 onwards) These sets were named after the then famous St George Chess Club of London. This was a relatively common form, as a result there are still many examples available, and the quality varies considerable. Its interesting to compare the St George set below to the Old English example (set 5) above. Note in set 5 how there is a turned out “hat” at the top of the king and proportionally smaller finals on all the pieces.


8.     Below is what is sometimes referred to as a Hastilow (circa 1830). Charles Hastilow was a famous turner/carver in the mid 19th century. There is no proof that I know of, that he ever made chess sets. Calling these Hastilow might have come from a dealer J. These sets to me are ornamental St. George pattern sets, if you remove the Maltese cross from the kings.



9.     Here is the so called “Lund” pattern that was introduced  by the Lund company of London circa 1840 onwards. These sets also turn up in the Jaques pattern books of 1870. The example below was created by a smaller manufacture later called Fisher. The Maltase cross always appears on these sets and is also found on other 19th century non Lund sets. These sets are again monobloc – except for the knights heads that screw off.



10. Occasionally more decorative engine turned version of these sets turned up. These are much rarer and highly prized by collectors. This one was probably produced my another smaller manufacturer call Merrifield (circa 1840).



11. So called Calvert sets are thought to have be introduced around the same time (circa 1840). Calvert was another well know turning company. Calvert certainly made some of these sets but whether the firm introduced this form is unclear. The style of this set draws on central European (Selenus pattern) playing sets for inspiration in terms of form of the king and queen.



12. Barleycorn sets so named for the carving found on some of these sets, are an evolution of the Washington type sets and were very common throughout the 19th century even after the Staunton design was introduced. Each piece is made from several sections, in the same fashion as the earlier Washington sets. The cheapest form just has ring turning rather than carving on the pieces, - these cheaper set are still considered “Barleycorn” sets. The set to the left is a ivory version, the set to the right is a cheaper bone version.



13. More elaborate version also exist, because there is no other type definition for sets following this form and sectional construction of the set below one can consider it a “Barleycorn”. This is a large set probably made by one of the better manufactures like Calvert.



14.  Here is a set that combines a few styles. You will run into such sets, you need to evaluate them on their own individual merits, I would classify this as an early 19th century Barleycorn, a transistion from the washington style. Note how similar the knight is to set 3’s knight.



15. The Edinburgh Uprights pattern were designed by Lord John Hay around 1840 and marketed by Jaques of London, mostly for the Scotland market. They continued in use until the late 1800s. They are relatively rare and because of the almost architecture design are very popular. They are more commonly made out of wood.


 

16. The Dublin pattern were marketed by Jaques, the style of these sets does vary quite a bit from set to set so I think there was more than one manufacturer.  Again being another nice design produced in relative small numbers makes these very collectable today compared to a more common pattern like St. George.



17. Here is a Jaques Staunton set, originally introduced in 1849 and which today is the standard design for serious play. The original Jaques sets are generally good quality, the larger weighted wooden sets and  ivory sets are particularly sought after. I have been caught out buying Jaques sets more than once. With any set you need to work out what is original and what pieces have be imported or restored. But, because Jaques sets are relatively uniform and were produce in reasonable numbers it is easier to creates a set from several incomplete sets…. you have been warned !  Frank A. Camaratta excellent site “House of Staunton” have some  great information on Jaques and how to date them. See my reference list below for more information.



18. British Chess Company Staunton pattern sets.  The BCC produced quality chess sets based on the Staunton design in the mid to late 19th century. Some of their wooden sets have composite knights heads with the rest of the set made from conventionally turned wooden work. Many of the BCC sets can almost match the Jaques in terms of quality but  don’t carry the price premium associated with a Jaques signature.



19. Unknown design ! The interesting thing about collecting sets is that occasionally you run into something that you cannot quite get a handle on. Here is the red side of a set I am currently grappling with. I have seen photos of two similar sets but that about it. This set is over 5 inches tall and finely made out of bone.  It reminds me a little of set 13 in carving style, and indeed it may be from the same manfacturer and peroid. However the rooks are very strange, like an earlier form. It would interesting to know conclusively who made it and exactly when.



 

What should you buy ?

 

First see and handle as many sets as you can, (not always easy). Buy the best you can afford, inspect each sets carefully – especially Jaques ! Be willing to buy part-sets if the price is right and they are unusually rare or particularly finely made. For new collectors I would recommend starting with a Washington and a nice quality wooden St. George set, and once you are comfortable with these sets you can start to buy others measuring their quality and importance against the first two. Longer term you can start trading in your beginner sets for finer examples, this help control the costs somewhat while upgrading your collection.

 

Final Thoughts

 

There is a lot more information that needs to be developed before we can see the full picture including who originally designed a lot of these sets; for example what was the range of sizes they came in, ,what prices were charged for each and in what volumes were they produced etc.

 

So as I indicted earlier, hopefully this article will motivate other experienced collectors to provide their insights and I will be happy  to amend or expand this article to accomadate any new information.

Taking photos of chess pieces can be quite an adventure, but that subject deserves its own article, stay tuned.

 

References And Related Articles:

 

House of Staunton information on Jaques : http://www.chessantiques.com/antiquejaques.html

 

British Chess Sets by Michael Mark 1996         – Excellent article  by a leading collector.

Chessmen for Collectors by Victor Keats 1985 – Good overall reference book.

Master Pieces by Gareth Williams Apple Press – Good book, well written and nice clear photos.

 

Contact me : dermot_rochford@yahoo.co.uk for further information.

This article is still under construction, I intend to update it over time. Copyright Dermot Rochford 2005.
Please do not reproduce or use any material from this article without my prior consent.

Return to the mail page Antique Chess Sets and Related Items