16 April 2011

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked

As I was examining Edmund de Waal’s ivory netsukes closely, it occurred to me to go back to have a look at the famous Lewis chess pieces in Britain. After all the two sets of objects were largely the same size, with the same amount of detailed carving and made from similar materials. I must admit, however, that the chessmen and the netsukes were made centuries apart, in two nations thousands of ks away from each other and for totally different purposes.

Lewis chess pieces in the Royal Museum, Edinburgh

The Lewis Chessmen are a group of 78 chess pieces made of ivory. When they were found in 1831 on one of the Outer Hebrides islands off the NW coast of Scotland, research suggested 12th century origins. Those origins were probably in a coastal area of Norway or in the Western Isles, a part of Scotland that was then ruled by Norway. An alternative opinion has been best represented by Chess, Goddess and Everything, a blog that noted Iceland as the country of origin for the pieces.

The pawns, represented by a tombstone-type shape, range from 3.5 to 6 cm each, while the human-looking royals, bishops etc range from 7 to 10 cm each. This suggests that the 78 pieces may have come from more than one chess set, easily possible since chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe in the C12th.

The debate about who should own and display these precious medieval pieces started soon after the set was discovered. They were exhibited by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in the same year, 1831, but for some reason the chessmen were soon split up. Sir Charles Sharpe Kirkpatrick, 6th Baronet of Closeburn bought a minority of the pieces. Later the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland bought Kirkpatrick’s pieces, eventually donating them to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

The treasure must have been expensive. The rather sleazy dealer called Mr Forrest wanted to cash in on the rest of the pieces that Kirkpatrick couldn’t afford and approached the British Museum in London who acquired them some months later. Thus the majority of the chess pieces are still owned and displayed by the English-based museum today. Over the last 20 years, the British Museum has lent some number of its chess pieces to major museums inside the country and internationally. Between 2003 and 2006, for example, seven pieces travelled to Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich, as part of the exhibition Buried Treasure: Finding Our Past.

Needless to say there are many Scottish historians and political writers who believe that the British Museum’s ownership of the chess pieces is ahistorical and perhaps illegitimate; that the entire collection should be displayed in a specially built museum in the Outer Hebrides at best, or on the Scottish mainland at least. In 2011, 30 chess pieces from the National Museums Scotland and the British Museum are touring Scotland in an exhibition called The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked. This exhibition says it is providing all the up to date research, delving into the mysteries of one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland!

A very nice book was written by James Robinson, The Lewis Chessmen, and published by the British Museum Press in 2004.  Treasure: Finding our Past, by Richard Hobbs, was the book that accompanied the travelling exhibition. It too was published by The British Museum Press.





25 comments:

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello:
The matter of ownership, always a minefield where antiquities are concerned, is, we feel, of less importance than that the public has reasonable access to items, of whatever kind, which are purchased or aquired for and on behalf of the nation.

The establishing of new regional museums is a very worthy idea, but not necessarily a practical one in these present times.

BigJack said...

My children saw the pieces at the British Museum and loved their faces and costumes. They just wished the pieces would have been bigger.

Hermes said...

I've seen them - fascinating. They're on tour at the moment:

http://www.nms.ac.uk/our_museums/national_museum/lewis_chessmen_unmasked.aspx

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,
agreed. Access, preferably free access, is always the critical issue. So I think the Buried Treasure: Finding Our Past Exhibition, that travelled between many cities for 3+ years, was a brilliant idea. Alas only a small number of pieces could be included.

Hels said...

Jack,

whichever artist(s) did the carving of the chessmen took great care in getting the faces and costumes just right. The crowns, thrones, bishop's crooks and horses look perfect; the faces look serious or bored or funny; and the clothes hang as crisply and as perfectly as on the day they were carved.

If I was taking my grandchildren now, I would buy a large poster of the pieces and frame it. Otherwise they might miss the gorgeous details.

Hels said...

Hermes,

You are so lucky... I wish I could have seen them.

The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked tour will be at its final venue in Stornoway from now until Sept 2011. This is very appropriate since the Isle of Lewis was where the mystery of the chessmen all started.

Alas for those people who missed out, after September they will have to go back to the British Museum in London, I suppose.

John hopper said...

Personally I believe that we have reached the stage where the major European museums should be broken up, with items devolving to their original places of origin - the Tate museum is a good case in point where this has been attempted with a certain amount of success. If the British Museum were to take a similar path, then much of the legitimate grumbling across the four countries would at least be partially addressed. Most of the large centralised museums were mostly an 18th/19th century construct and a means of displaying centralised power of the capital over dominions and culturally diverse European empires. This form of imperialism no longer serves any real purpose in our own era.

As to the British Museum itself, it tends to jealously guard as many indigenous British (Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English) possessions as it can manage to hold on to. While there is a case for allowing large numbers of the public to view the items in London, if you happen to live in the Outer Hebrides, of what use is a display in London?

As to dubious aquisitions from outside of Europe, most should be repatriated to their country of origin starting with the Elgin marbles.

Hels said...

John
thanks for the spot-on comments.

Most of the large centralised museums that emerged in the C18th and C19th might well have displayed the centralised power of the capital over dominions.

But top museums might also have demonstrated the authority of royalty and the nobility. Equally they could have been part of a true Enlightenment passion for learning and a wish to spread the learning.

If your theory was solely the true motive, imperialism would certainly be unwelcome now. But I wonder if the _inter-country_ repatriation issues are the same as rightful ownership _within a nation_. Far north Scotland might be remoter, poorer and less powerful than London and the Home Counties, but are you saying that the remoter regions still suffer from 19th century imperialism?

4tune said...

Great pieces of medieval art. Probably you know the so called "Charlemagne Chessmen". It's very similar.

Ruby Hawk said...

It would be very interesting to see them.

Hels said...

4tune
thank you...
you are right to bring this ivory chess set to our attention - two kings, two queens, four elephants, four knights, three chariots and a private. Later 11th century? Italian craftsmen?

Sets like these go to show how much effort medieval rulers were prepared to expend on chess. I only wish I had seen the pieces in the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

Hels said...

ahhh Ruby, me too. The only thing we can do is get superb images on line or in books, blow them up and analyse the details.

John hopper said...

While the imperial stanglehold of London is gradually being loosened, Scotland is part way to independence with Wales fast catching up, it does not change the institutional domination that London still holds over such things as regional artefacts. There is no conceivable reason why London should hold artefacts that originated from Scotland, a culture that it has little if anything in common with.

John hopper said...

I hope I am not coming across too stridently Helen. It is one of my personal irritations with London and by no means reflects on your own viewpoint or your excellent article and blog.

Hels said...

John
not at all.. I value the comments, especially from a distance of 15,000 ks. As often as I am in the UK and as much as I read British history, I can never have the "feel" of a local.

My personal preference would be to give the Lewish chessmen on permanent loan to a city like Inverness, not quite where they were located but at least accessible to most Scots and tourists. Although a compromise doesn't make anyone happy, this might be a workable solution.

Heather on her travels said...

I'm glad those chess pieces were mostly reunited - it seems a shame to me when beautiful objects are just for money rather than the purpose for which they were designed

Hels said...

ahhh Heather
what a shame that commercial interests intervened...I say that about almost any art piece that I come across.

I have written a post about the 12 exquisite Zurbaran paintings that were about to be sold off and split up by the Church Commissioners in Durham. The shame was averted... but who knows for how long?

Nicholas V. said...

Yes...
The Elgin marbles come to mind at once, of course, as do the numerous plundered Egyptian antiquities that are displayed in European museums.
I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand culture and provenance must be respected and the integrity of artistic masterpieces must maintained, but one the other hand, having representative artistic and historical artefacts in various museums around the globe enlightens many people and brings distant cultures and history of far away lands close to home.
Tough one, this one!

Nicholas V. said...

PS: I have a new Photoblog, which you may enjoy looking at:

http://nixpages.blogspot.com/

:-)

Hels said...

Nicholas

there aren't many historical events on which a historian is ambivalent. Either the execution of King Charles I was a good thing or it wasn't. Either Florence Nightingale did terrible harm to the soldiers in her Crimean hospital or she didn't. Either Australia should have had conscription during the 1914-18 war or not.

But your ambivalence on the question of other peoples' artistic and historical artefacts in museums was well expressed. I think you nailed the issues.

Paul said...

I'm catching a ferry to the Outer Hebrides today. I saw some of the pieces in Edinburgh last week and I am looking forward to acquainting myself with some more pieces in Stornaway.

Hels said...

Paul
have a fantastic trip!

Years ago I did a lecture series on the islands of Britain. And although I know and love Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Wight, Isle of Man etc myself, I have never been to the Outer Hebrides. Or further north.

Hels said...

Readers might like to examine a tiny Arabic chess piece found in museum dig in Wallingford. I noted that the chess piece was made from the tip of an antler in the 12th or 13th century and was highly decorated with traditional roundels - most other such pieces are at least double the size. This was a bishop so the other pieces in the set must have been really tiny - it may have been part of a travelling set.

I agreed that it may very well have been part of a travelling set but the size was so tiny, it may not have been a complete chess piece. My eyes wouldn't have been able to detect one 22mm piece from another, without getting out a magnifying glass. And I could not see the evidence for it being of Arabic origin.

Go to The History Blog
http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/41557

SBS Australia said...

Grand Tours of Scotland (2015) suggested the chessmen were more Gaelic than Scandinavian. Now they are considered the core symbols of Lewis.

Hels said...

SBS

excellent. I found it. Paul Murton tries his hand at weaving Harris Tweed, meets the family behind the world famous Stornoway black pudding and uncovers the remarkable story of how a mysterious medieval chess set was discovered on the remote beach of Uig on Lewis.

http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/722347075750/Grand-Tours-Of-Scotland