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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The history of artist designed chess sets.

Chess, in its earliest form, is commonly believed to have originated in North-West India in the 6th century. The early pieces represented Indian infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariotry which were the predecessors to pawns, knights, bishops, and rooks respectively. Other early versions have been documented in Persia, Spain, Portugal and Greece. By 1000 A.D. the game had spread throughout Europe, slowly evolving and developing into the modern international game of chess.
                Chess has always been a favourite of royalty and aristocracy for its complex strategy and ornamental pieces. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, chess was a popular part of noble culture being called colloquially as the “King’s Game”. Although many aristocratic chess sets have been lost throughout time, those that remain such as the Lewis Chessmen are valued and treasured.
                The Lewis Chessmen is one of the most famous uncovered chess sets used by nobility originating from the Nordic region in the 12th century. The armour worn by the chess figurines were perfect reproductions of Norwegian armour at the time including rooks that depicted wild Norse Berserkers. Carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth, the pieces feature bulging eyes and glum facial expressions and were widely believed to be painted red and white rather than the conventional black and white. The Lewis Chessmen are currently on display at the British Museum in London and National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Often fabled armies are used as inspiration for themed chess sets such as Natraja’s Limited Edition King Arthur and Sir Lancealot chess sets.
As chess grew in popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a growing demand for a standardized chess set design. Early sets such as the English Barleycorn, French Regence, and central European Selenus chess sets were clumsy to handle and had indistinguishable pieces.
In 1849, the current standard chess set for competitive play was introduced known as the Staunton chess set named after English chess master Howard Staunton. Staunton was a staunch proponent for a standardized competitive chess set and widely considered to be the best chess player in the world at the time. The designer of the Staunton chess set was Nathaniel Cook who was Howard Staunton’s editor at The Illustrated London News where Staunton wrote a chess column. Cook shaped his pieces in a neoclassical style with symbols of Victorian society. The bishop was represented by a mitre, the queen by a coronet and the king by a crown. Pawns were inspired by Victorian balconies however some believe that Cook mimicked the Freemasons’ Square and Compasses. Cook added a functional innovation by stamping an emblem on rooks and knights to identify which side of the board they started on (Queen’s side or King’s side). The bottoms of the pieces were weighted with lead and covered with felt to provide for stable balance and ease of movement. Human pieces - king, queen, bishop and pawn – had a head design resting on a flat disk known as the collar. The Staunton style quickly became the standard and favourite among professional chess players and was chosen by the World Chess Federation as its set of choice in 1924. The low production cost of the Staunton set allowed for mass production helping to popularize the game of chess. Furthermore, even though the pieces are supposed to be standardized there is actually a great variety in the minute details of Staunton chess pieces particularly between knights.
Chess pieces are normally figurines that are taller than they are wide, taking from the aesthetics of the Staunton set. Wooden chess pieces are normally made from boxwood by major chess set designers such as Natraja however maple, rosewood, ebony, red sandalwood, and walnut are also common materials. Aside from wood, many artisans prefer using plastic, bone or ivory for a more polished look. For actual play, the Staunton piece sizes are used as a standard with the height of the king ranging between 3.35 and 4.5 inches tall with a diameter that is forty to fifty percent of the height. The rest of the pieces of in proportion with the king as are the board squares which tend to be 1.25 to 1.3 times the king’s diameter. Chess set designs come in all shapes and sizes and many artists have taken to designing chess sets as pieces of art rather than functional game pieces. Modernist chess sets have been featured as works of art such as Man Ray’s set on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

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