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
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
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.
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 !
is what I will call a precursor to a “
is more classical
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
is the so called “
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
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.
sets so named for the carving found on some of these sets, are an evolution of
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.
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
Edinburgh Uprights pattern were designed by Lord John Hay around 1840 and
marketed by Jaques of London, mostly for the
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.
Chess Company Staunton pattern sets. The
BCC produced quality chess sets based on the
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
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 : email@example.com for further information.
This article is still under construction, I
intend to update it over time. Copyright Dermot Rochford
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