Saturday, December 01, 2012

Mr. Rosenbaum's Chess Picture. Part 6: Close Up

In this episode of the series we are going to pick over the detail in Rosenbaum's picture, and have a look at it as a piece of art.

                ©National Portrait Gallery 
       Click to enlarge
But before we do, a quick mention of another spot of the picture in the chess press...
From R.D.Keene. Chess: An Illustrated History (1990)
pub Phaidon

...which is a reproduction of a photo, now on display at Simpson's (or it was the last time I looked), of the original painting, which itself had been on show there over 130 years before.

In earlier posts we noticed some of the references that the artist had wittily insinuated into the composition, particularly on the back wall. It was the only one that Rosenbaum had at his disposal, and he took full advantage of it.

To recap a bit, there are the barely discernable roundels honouring chess heroes whose deaths antedate the picture. They were listed, slightly inaccurately, by The Chess-Monthly, but notice that the most recently demised, Evans (in 1872) and Staunton (in 1874), are added at the extremes left and right respectively, as if to convey that they had, subsequent to the others, just been installed. Then there are the two images - "paintings" note, as if to accord them special celebrity - of Paul Morphy (not yet dead), with a chess set, and Adolf Anderssen (died 1879), with a trophy: nice details within the details.

Lower down there are the “placards with the conventional club notices and comical inscriptions” as The Chess Monthly put it. They are more or less legible when you are up close to the painting. Going from left to right there is a notice referring to the City of London Chess Club; then something very faint and barely noticeable followed by a group of three on green baize (all unclear); next to Gumpel we find Mephisto as discussed in episode 3; then a notice for St. George's CC; finally, just behind Rosenbaum, there is an In Memoriam requiem for the ill-fated West End Chess Club with a faint illustration, possibly of two characters seated at a chess board.   

The clock, top dead centre in front of the mirror, tells us the time of day: it is a most civilised five o’clock in the afternoon - that’s real time, in the real world, where and when the factory whistle signals the end of the shift or, as is more likely in polite company, the bell tinkles and tea, or something stronger, is served. Compare this with the other clock, the one at the front on the table by the ongoing chess game...

...which says, not five o’clock, but three; an anomaly that resolves when we remember that these gents, intent on their game, are in a chess world, not the real world and, as all chessers know, chess time flies at its own tempo. This clock marks the hour of the telegraphic transmission of the move, the one that the footman is now presenting to the Master of Ceremonies. Here in the Universal Chess Club it is not tea-time, it is move-time and the chess clock will tick-tock at its own pace till the last move is made, and the game is done.

Now transported to the front table you can inspect the other paraphernalia that Rosenbaum has put there. Speaking art-wise you could call this arrangement a pretty competent still life, though purists may prefer to see the entire front page of The Field (in which Hoffer was running a chess column). The other paper could be showing a chess problem (or a crossword, if non-chessers would prefer). We know about position on the board from episode 3, but what about that trophy? Looks familiar?   

Yes, it was recently seen stealing the show from Streatham and Brixton Chess Club member Andrew Stone after Middlesex’s victory in the Inter-Counties Championship (that's right: Streatham isn't in Middlesex). It is the same Löwenthal Cup (purchased from a surplus in his Testimonial Fund, and after various changes of hands bought by the BCF in, or shortly after, 1922) as sits on the table at the front of Mr Rosenbaum’s chess painting.  Here is the trophy in all its gilded magnificence.
Pic thanks to Steve Mann
 at Yorkshire Chess History 
Löwenthal himself is in Rosenbaum's painting (between Bird and MacDonnell), even though he died in 1876 (Anomaly Alert! How then could he appear along with a cup purchased after his death?).  The empty chairs are odd, when so many of the gents are made to stand, but maybe Rosenbaum was leaving room for a few more so as to get his tally nearer to a round 50 or, running with the Gunsberg gag, Mr R has reserved him a seat for when he returns from Mephisto duties.

Over to the right is the nicely-painted and well-stocked drinks tray (mentioned by The Chess-Monthly, see episode 2) which has also caught Wordsworth Donisthorpe’s attention (he's in the light suit, and we will come back to him in another post, promise). 

You'll recall, from episode 1, that The Chess Monthly spoke about Rosenbaum's difficulties of getting his subject matter...i.e. "of getting the necessary sittings, the photographs, or even sight of the originals he wished to paint " [my emphasis-MS]...implying that he relied on the copying of photographs, or illustrations in the press, to get the job done. To catch him at it - copying borrowed portraits - just look at this: from a picture-weekly of the time...

From the Daily Graphic December 29 1875
(via Chess Archeology )
  ...and here you will recognise some familiar Rosenbaum faces. He has used the seated figures of MacDonnell, Löwenthal and Bird (left) around his Board 1; and Horwitz and Murton (sitting right) at Board 2. Standing are Messrs. Gastineau and Rabbeth - unnamed (as are Lowenthal and Murton) by the Daily Graphic -  but recognisable from Rosenbaum. 

Now for a bit of retrograde analysis. With a bit of cutting and pasting from the Rosenbaum portraits here is my reconstruction of  The Graphic image above:

Pretty close, apart from some small spacing issues and the orientation of Gastineau to make him peer at us rather than the board. Clearly Rosenbaum copied The Graphic or, perhaps more likely, had access to the same material as did the magazine. There may well be more of Rosenbaum's sources in the popular graphic or illustrated press (chess or otherwise), but I haven't stumbled on them yet. That would have to include the source for Henry Bird above, because if you put the Rosenbaum and Daily Graphic images side by side (as below) you can see that Mr R must have used some other original; in fact he has flattered Mr B a touch, given him a haircut, and maybe knocked a few years off him. He has also tried to scale the head more harmoniously to the body - not completely successfully -  because The Graphic image looks unnaturally contrived (perhaps with a head "pasted" on to the wrong shoulders).    

Let’s now go back to the five o’clock clock, or more precisely the mantelpiece upon which it sits. This detail opens the door to the wider view. It has an important role in the organisation of the painting as it is the horizon line for its governing perspective scheme, as you can see from the diagram below. All the receding parallels on view, from the three chess boards for example, meet there. In the conventions of perspective they are supposed to meet at "infinity".    

This high horizon line conveys the impression of a high view point for the spectator (you and me). But because the mantelpiece is so close, and not at the "infinity" point somewhere north of Watford, we get the impression of a sloping floor; or of tiers (as around an intimate tea-dance salon, or a modern-day football stadium). It looks like one of those school photos with rank of uniformed pupils piled one on top of another. But, in the one clear stretch of floor that we can see (running up to Bird and friends on board one) it is flat and continuous.

If Rosenbaum's intention was to help us see all the portraits clearly, even in the back row, we'd have to say that he pretty much pulled it off, even if he has, willy nilly, distorted the perspective. Compare it to the painting below where, with pukka perspective, the floor is obviously level and every one stands on it...

George Elgar Hicks
Dividend Day at the Bank of England (1859)
Bank of England Collection
... but you can't make out the faces at the back, even though, very cleverly, Hicks has enabled us to glimpse all 30-odd of his characters. Incidentally, it's likely that Dividend Day would have been known to, and admired by, the investment-savvy gents of the Universal Chess Club as it was in the RA Summer Exhibition of 1859. Some of them might even have witnessed such a scene first-hand when down at the Bank collecting their own wind-falls.

So, we are at a high vantage point vis a vis Rosenbaum's gents; and we are looking down on that game at the front. But we see the figures, in all the rows including the first, as if we are at the same eye level - and that creates problems for the look of his composition. This inconsistency arises because, Rosenbaum was either painting in portraits posed from real life, or (as we have seen above, and this is crucial to his method, and his achievement) "pasting in" copies of images from photographs and the press; and of course these would all have been originated at eye level before they were added to the full tableau. Given the technical difficulties of the task Rosenbaum set himself we can forgive that the relative sizes of the sitting and the standing figures also sometimes get out of kilter (e.g the group around Donisthorpe).

For the record let's mention one other intriguing aspect. How big was the picture, and could it have been trimmed at some time in its life? At its unveiling The Chess Monthly said it was "6ft. by 4ft. including frame". Today the NPG says it is "32 in. x 60 in." - which is 5ft. by 2ft. 8 in. excluding frame. Which means that, when unveiled in 1880, the frame could have been a generous 6 inches all around: not impossible, but rather ostentatious. R.N.Coles, when he saw it in 1980, expressed surprise that the picture, by then more modestly framed (if at all), wasn't bigger. Perhaps, though, he mistakenly had in mind The Field's dimensions as being the canvas size.

But could it have been reduced by a foot or so? At the bottom Donisthorpe is cut off at the ankle; and along the top we lose the edges of the Morphy and Anderssen picture frames. Could there have been some scissoring along the way?
A couple of feet less than expected?
Well, the NPG's own condition report (in its Archive) doesn't mention it. Maybe if they ever unscrew it from the wall at Bodelwyddan Castle they will have a look again. Possibly Hoffer et al exaggerated the dimensions for effect. Given the size of his ambition, Rosenbaum may simply have miscalculated what he could get in and then ran out of space, denying us the opportunity to admire Donisthorpe's taste in shoes.  

It is, though, a monumental feat of organisation and planning, fraught with compositional challenges, at the mercy of the subject matter that came to hand, and vulnerable to unforeseen eventualities - such as the premature demise of a personnage already placed in position: Löwenthal for instance. Once you know he had already passed on it is difficult to expunge the thought that his cadaver remains upright only because of the discreet connivance of Mr Gastineau behind.

Overall, you have to admire Rosenbaum's vision, and perseverance to see it through, and you could say that Rosenbaum's 50-up was in the grand manner of action-packed Victorian crowd-scene painting such as  Frith's Railway Station of 1862 which has 60-ish and a dog, and another Hicks: The General Post Office - 1 minute to 6 with 40-ish (and another dog) of 1860. Like Frith and Hicks, AR attempted to imbue his tableau with incident and interplay, however downbeat and low-key a chess séance would be. Hicks incidentally earned £1700 per annum at the height of his career, which puts into context Rosenbaum's £200 for the several years' on-off labour over his chess painting.

Perhaps (wild hypothesis warning) Rosenbaum was hoping also to get his magnum opus selected for the RA Summer Exhibition, to catch the eye of the art-viewing (and purchasing) public and thus to make his artistic reputation. Perhaps he was persuaded by his chess chums to let them buy it instead, so as to keep it in the family. Perhaps, also, they could see what he couldn't: that it would be savaged by the art critics of the day.

The NGA Archive contains an expert's comment a hundred years or so later: that Rosenbaum's chess picture  is of worth as an historical document rather than as a work of art. Perhaps we should settle for that, and value it for giving us a unique record of the chess characters of the time, even if Rosenbaum's own self-portrait (leaving aside all the others) should not to be taken at face value - as we will see when look at the man himself in the last episode.

What a painting!

Next week another character takes the limelight; someone who would have basked in it.

Two episodes more to goSee all episodes in the series via our History Index

1 comment:

ejh said...

I thought that said "RD Keene: An Illustrated History" but alas no...