Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mr. Rosenbaum's Chess Picture. Part 1: The Tableau

This is how The Chess-Monthly broke the news in late 1880…
'PRIVATE VIEW OF MR ROSENBAUM’S CHESS PICTURE – An event of unusual interest took place on Saturday, the 30th October, at 26, Manchester Square [in London’s West End - MS], the residence of Dr. Ballard. Almost on the eve of our going to press we are unable to give the details in extensio. Nevertheless, as it is our duty to supply our readers in the provinces and abroad with the earliest information possible, we devote as much space as we can spare to do justice to the artist, as a feeble expression of our gratification to see [Mr. Rosenbaum’s] labour of many years crowned with deserved success.'
 …sentiments that this series of posts humbly seeks to emulate: we, too, will endeavour to do Mr Rosenbaum's picture, and the artist, justice, albeit 130 years later, but near enough to the anniversary of that “event of unusual interest” on 30th October 1880. And we, too, are pleased that once again the good folk reading this blog in the “provinces and abroad” will have to opportunity to join we metropolitan types in the fun and games.

But we have rudely interrupted The Chess-Monthly report. Let’s get back to what is barely, in fashion of the day, the beginning of its first paragraph. It continues thus:
'Several years ago (we think in 1874) Mr Rosenbaum offered to paint a group of eighteen prominent members of the City of London Chess Club, and to present the painting as a prize for a handicap open to all members of the Club. The picture was fairly commenced, but abandoned, owing to the reluctance of most members to join the Handicap. Though Mr. R.’s actual cash expenses were secured to him, he was loath to lose the material he had collected. His severe illness for several years prevented him indulging actively in his twin hobby for chess and painting, but in 1877 he formed a new project, viz.: to paint a fancy chess gathering, which should contain portraits of all prominent members of the English Chess world. Every one to whom the idea was communicated, pronounced it to be impossible of realisation, and if accomplished prognosticated, as to the result, a total failure. But Mr. Rosenbaum, nothing daunted by these prophecies, and braving the difficulty of getting the necessary sittings, the photographs, or even sight of the originals he wished to paint, went to work in earnest, and after three years’ steady application to the task he had set himself, finished the picture…'
 …and we break-off again for a breather, and a little diversion from that relentless para., the second half of which still stretches yonder. So, at the risk of getting slightly ahead of the story, let’s jump forward 130-odd years. The under-appreciated painting (which we will get to after the necessary preliminaries) of a "fancy chess gathering" is now in the ownership of the National Portrait Gallery, and is currently outposted to the restored Bodelwyddan Castle near Rhyl, in North Wales…

...where is sits in the splendour of what, in spite of the "Castle" appellation, and its appearance, is a Victorian mansion. Most appropriate. Beware, though, if you visit to have a look as you could easily miss the tableau, dimly lit as it is, in the shadows of the Billiard Room (and so a word of advice in your shell-like, from someone who has been there: if you want to study the picture, take a torch).

It's in here; somewhere. 
 Now, we soldier on with that interminable first para. It cranks up the tension…
'[The artist] challenged [all] criticism by issuing the following invitation : - “Mr. A. Rosenbaum requests the pleasure of Mr. --------'s company at the first private view of his “Chess Picture,” at 26, Manchester Square (by kind permission of Dr. W. R. Ballard, Jun), on Saturday, the 30th of October, at which Dr. Zuckertort will play eight games blindfold.” Most of the recipients of this card were, of course, on the tiptoe of expectation, many of them having only seen the picture in an unfinished state a long time ago. Shortly after two o’clock a steady stream of visitors commenced to arrive, and the séance began. On entering the large reception-room one was agreeably impressed by the novelty of the scene. Mr. R. could not reasonably depend on a bright day at this time of year, and had therefore determined to make use of artificial light, though he must have felt convinced of the fact that no painting can be exhibited to the best advantage by such means.' 
The reader is obliged to conjure the scene in their mind's eye as The Chess-Monthly didn't provide an illustration of Dr Ballard's handsome reception room. The correspondent does a jolly good job nonetheless, and provides this vivid description:
'The west triangle of the room was tastefully draped of with dark crimson curtains, arranged to cover a large square of gas-piping with powerful burners. The frontispiece of this structure bore on the top a medallion with a tied bunch of arrows, encircled by the motto, “Viviat, Caïssa,” and at the bottom the inscription, “A match by telegraph, suggestion for the future.” On the side festoons were fragments of chains, emblematical of the present unfortunate state of disunion in metropolitan Chess circles. These decorations appeared in semi-darkness by contrast with the brilliant centre opening, which poured in its hidden lights on the picture, 6ft. by 4ft., including frame, the effect was startling.'
Now, on the tiptoe of expectation as you surely must be, prepare to be startled. Jump to the picture:


© National Portrait Gallery

Splendid! Well worth waiting for, even if you are not standing in front its panoramic "6ft. by 4ft. including frame" magnificence, dripping with drapes and medallions, and bathed in gas-light.

The image of the picture is on the NPG’s website here, and there you will find their instructions for licensing a free download for personal and blog use.

When you look at the NPG’s online catalogue you’ll see that they give this list of some of the sitters, many of whom may be familiar, even today, as chess players: Henry Bird (1830-1908), Joseph Blackburne (1841-1924), Richard Dawson, 1st Earl of Dartrey (1817-1897) [OK. Not so familiar - MS], Charles Gümpel (1835-1921, the creator of Mephisto), Bernhard Horwitz (1807-1885), Johann Löwenthal (1810-1876), George MacDonnell (1830-1899), James Mason (1849-1905), Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900), George Walker (1803-1879) and Johannes Zuckertort (1842-1888). Unfortunately, the NPG doesn’t help us online by identifying precisely where they are in the picture. But we'll come back to them (and in the meantime have a guess).

They also say that the artist himself is in the painting, and that he died in 1888. As to when he was born: well the 1851 census* has him (as Anton) aged 22, so born in 1829 say, and in Hamburg (though Gaige says he was born in June 1831).

They don't identify any of the sitters in their caption at Bodelwyddan Castle either, except for Anthony Rosenbaum, the artist (they label him “a well-known chess player” - but in truth, not so well-known then as such, and certainly not now). He stands in the back row, in profile, next to the waiter on the right. Yes, that is Mr Rosenbaum, and we will have a good look at him again in a later post.

In their Archive the NPG has the contemporaneous key to all 47 – 47! – of the gentlemen (plus two waiters, a commissionaire, and some paintings etc on the wall). In the next post we will give them all the once over and, for assistance now and then, we will enlist the thorough and evocative (if long-winded) accounts in The Chess-Monthly; but at least we have finished with its first paragraph.

In fact a series of  eight weekly posts stretches ahead in which we will examine the painting in some detail, explore its nooks and crannies, and track the occasional references to it in the chess press over the years.  We'll also look at some of the characters depicted in it, including, of course, the artist himself: Anthony Rosenbaum. And we'll look at some who aren't.

The series will contain a mixture of historical fact and, here and there, imaginative interpretation in the style of  The Chess-Monthly, as above. This being a blog and not an academic text it will, in places, lapse into the "perhaps" and "maybe" manner of telling (though it should be clear where and when). Perhaps and maybe it will be a better read for it. It relies on the work of others, for which thanks and due credit. All errors, omissions, embellishments and exaggerations are the author's responsibility.

(Links to subsequent episodes in this series are: 2. Who's Who3. AWOL4. Flog It5. Pass6. Close Up7. Adonis8. Mr Rosenbaum. 9. Mr.R Again... 10. And Now Mr S ; Also via the  History Index) 

Acknowledgements etc. 
*Anton Rosenbaum in the 1851 census: Kingston upon Hull/Parish of St.Mary/Humber/District 2/page 23/entry 99: Address unclear (but possibly 3, Vallance Place). Occupation: Painter. Origin: Hamburg (i.e. Germany). 

The photos of Bodelwyddan Castle and its billiard room are from the NPG here. 
Thanks to Olimpiu Urcan for drawing the picture to my attention, even though it was under my nose all the while; and also to the staff at Bodelwyddan Castle who found a torch, and listened indulgently to my ad-lib commentary on their picture. Other acknowledgements as the series progresses, but at the outset a big thanks to Paul Timson for patiently seeking answers for me from his chess library. 
Jeremy Gaige Chess Personalia: A Bio-bibliography McFarlane (1987).
Tim Hardings's Eminent Victorian Chess Players McFarlane (2012) has been indispensable.


Sarah Beth said...

Thanks! That's a remarkable painting and a good story so far. I went to the Nat'l Portrait Gallery to download a larger version of the painting to study.

ejh said...

I don't suppose any of the sitters shelled out to be in the painting, as per The Night Watch?