## Saturday, June 11, 2011

This is the second post on Richard Dadd's 1857 painting The Child's Problem:

In the first post we saw that the artist had painted a two-mover into his picture.

Which is the diagram of this position:

It's not too late to have a go at solving it. The answer is further down if you need it.

However, success won’t get you any bonus points as, frankly, most decent ten year-old chessers could get it, as we'll show below. So, who first figured out the position that was indistinctly represented in Dadd's murky painting?

It appeared in the Chess Addict editions, but Richard James says that it was the late Mike Fox who wrote the section on chess-playing artists, and so for obvious and sad reasons that trail goes cold. Eduardo Sadier’s mega database of two-movers has the problem, but Sñr Sadier says he doesn't know from where it was sourced, and moreover there are no variations of its setting in his files. It’s a one-off. So that’s another cul-de-sac.

But, as I then discovered, the diagram is given in a couple of art books about Dadd, with the prior claim going to Patricia Allderidge’s 1974 The Late Richard Dadd. She says:
“The title [of the picture] refers quite literally to the position on the chess board, which represents a very simple composed problem…simple enough, in fact, to be solved or even set by a child”.
Well, is it "simple enough to be solved by a child"? Richard James tried it out on a group of his young chess students (thanks Gerard, Max, Marley, Anais and Nick), and the answer is "yes", though whether a ten-year-old Victorian child (guessing at the age of the Child), without Richard’s coaching skills, could have managed it is another question.

So, she may have been right about solving it, but the “even set by a child” assertion is debatable. Richard says “I don't think any of [the ten year-olds in my group] would even be able to start composing a problem like this” and I think that given his eminence in the field of child chess development that settles it - ten year old Victorian composing prodigy Lilian Baird being the exception that proves the rule.*

As to her source, Ms. Allderidge gives a footnote where she diagrams The Child’s Problem, and acknowledges - we've got there - Leonard Barden and the late Hugh O'D. Alexander for transcribing it, and so they must take the credit for solving this part of the mystery. Not mincing their words, they offered the following assessments of the problem: “banal” - Barden - and “rather poor” - Alexander - the latter adding “but not so poor if it was set by Dadd himself and not by a serious problem composer.”

C.H.O'D. ponders another problem.
And another thirty-plus years later, opinion remains the same (thanks to Michael McDowell, Vice-President of the British Chess Problem Society, for taking the time to give us his contemporary assessment). Serious problemistas, such as all the aforementioned, like to savour more than one line of play after the key move.
But, while nul point is their verdict, an over-the-board player (well this one, anyway) might be rather pleased to see the black king obliged to self-destruct. We could even go a bit psychological and see it as a metaphor for Dadd’s own predicament.

So, could Dadd play chess well enough to compose a Problem as rudimentary as this? Ms. Allderdice, who was the archivist of the hospital says “chess was a popular pastime in Bethlem". Although she adds “but there is no evidence as to whether Dadd played or not”. Mike Fox suggested otherwise in the Addict. He said “In his journals [Dadd] raved about the Ruy Lopez”, which makes Dadd sound like a real devotee of the game, “raving” (as Mike indelicately put it) knowledgably about a favourite and sophisticated opening.

It is unlikely though, Richard thinks, that Mike researched the primary sources, and it seems therefore that he got the reference from Isaure de Saint Pierre’s portrayal of Dadd’s life published in 1984: Richard Dadd - His Journals.

Be warned. This isn't the dry and dusty documentary analysis suggested by the title but, as the author freely admits in the preface, an imaginative interpretation in the service of an entertaining and readable novel. It is an account which the term "sexed-up" fits nicely and, in parts, literally - enough to make your blogger blush one morning in the V & A's National Art Library. Mike must also have dipped into this colourful volume. This is the relevant passage, in which Dadd supposedly reminisces as follows:
“Those endless games of chess in Bethlem Hospital! I’ve moved my king’s bishop to square B5. This is the Spanish attack: the Ruy Lopez opening. My White
Bishop commands the centre. I think my opponent was Dr. Hood,……I can’t say for
sure I was playing this game against him, but I have a picture in my mind’s eye
of a …hand…moving over the chess board, attacking my bishop diagonally by way of
square A6. The bishop retreats to A4, the second knight moves to F6, I castle,
he castles…..”

Really? Would Dadd have used algebraic notation? Would he have spoken of the Lopez Bishop commanding the centre from b5? And those moves. The precise order may have been misremembered, of course, but an early ..a6 in the Spanish in the mid-19th century, in Bedlam? Black castling without moving his f8 bishop? Authorial licence? Quite possibly.

It seems likely that the author consulted, adapted, and maybe inadvertantly mangled, a late 20th century chess source for the words she puts into Dadd's mouth. To spare my further blushes I won't mention the other things she puts there in the course of the novel.
There is, however, something rather more reliable on Dadd's chess interests: a note made by Dr. William Orange, the second Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, on November 7th 1864 when Dadd was there as a patient. Dadd, incidentally, painted his portrait, suggesting mutual trust and confidence.

Dr. Orange’s contemporary note (available in the Berkshire Record Office) should be accurate, although its meaning is not immediately apparent :
“As examples of his thoughts [Dadd] told me this afternoon that the power
some people have of playing Chess without the board was probably due to
their having a familiar spirit and that towards some people the chess pieces
were evidently unfriendly and that this unfriendliness might be due to the
antiquity of the Game.”
If you strip out Dadd's idiosyncratic theory concerning the selective animus of the pieces he seems to be saying that (a) some people can't play, (b) others are so good they can do so without seeing the board or, as we would say, they can play "blindfold".

So here is an intriguing thought: could the reclining figure in the picture painted seven years earlier be doing just that: playing blindfold?

"After your last move, I now announce mate in two, beginning 1.Qd8!"

From the chess point of view could this explain the relative placing of the two characters in The Child’s Problem? Although there may be a contrived two-mover on the board, Dadd may have indeed intended that the figures should be seen as playing a genuine contest. One player, the child, has sight of the board, but his opponent is playing alongside with eyes tight shut: or as Dadd phrased it, "playing Chess without the board".

And with that, please come back for a further post in a few weeks time on the Dadd story, when we will look at more chess in the Asylum. And in the meantime check us out on the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive and Museum Blog (see their post of 6 June).

References etcIsaure de Saint Pierre (ed. Anthea Bell), Richard Dadd - his journals. Aiden Ellis, Henley 1984 (originally published in Paris 1980).
Thanks to Colin Gale and Victoria Northwood of the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive and Museum for their generous assistance, and to Richard James for his help in general, and for the solving exercise and the Miss Baird tip, in particular.
For the story of another involuntary, but brief, visitor to Bethlem see the last episode of Every Picture Tells A Story.

*Postscript: in the TATE Etc mag. for Spring 2011, Jennifer Higgie (author of Bedlam, another novel inspired by Dadd) says it is "..a position on the chessboard considered easy enough to have been set by a child.." Said often enough it becomes accepted as a truth...