Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Other Talent of Samuel Boden

We continue this series of occasional posts on chessers-who-painted, i.e. artists-who-played, with a look at the half-forgotten, or maybe half-remembered, figure of the Victorian Samuel Standidge Boden (1826-1882).  

Victorian he may have been, but he doesn't appear in Anthony Rosenbaum's group chess-painting examined in detail in the series starting here. Maybe Rosenbaum didn't relish the prospect of exposing himself, while on the job, to the critical scrutiny of a fellow chess-artist, hence Boden wasn't given a look-in. A more mundane reason could be that Boden was associated with the wrong club, St.George's, and not the City of London Club more favoured by Rosenbaum and many of his other 46 subjects. Here instead is an illustration from Edge's book of 1859 on Morphy in Europe showing a youthful Boden (flanked by Staunton and Löwenthal).   

If Samuel Standidge Boden's name rings any bells it may be because it is attached to the mating pattern he unleashed in a game in 1853. If it hadn't been seen before, it has since.  

Artistic tactics test (no prizes). Left to Right: Schulder-Boden 1853, B to play; Alekhine-Vasic 1931. W; 
Elyashov-NN 1948, W.  From here.
"Boden's Mate" would be chess epitaph enough, but you'll also know the other one at the front end - a gambit against the Petroff (or, by transposition, the Bishop's Opening), although Boden has to share its posterity with Kieseritsky: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Bc4 Nxe4 4. Nc3. The B-KG may not be everyday fare in contemporary competitive chess, but it has received a measure of attention, for example here.  My ancient (though not quite Victorian) MCO shows an alleged refutation by Polugayevsky on a day off from the Sicilian (Andrew Martin looks a little deeper at Polu's line on page 42 of his book on the Bishop's). Here's a link to a game by Boden playing his gambit and agreeing a draw against Morphy. According to Schiller the final position is actually a win for our man. But is it? One for Jonathan B
Boden-Morphy London 1858.
White to play. 
Boden's passing on Friday 13th January 1882 was marked in chess columns and magazines the length and breadth of the land. 
From The Chess Player's Chronicle of 1882
Thanks to Batgirl here 
It was at his home in Tavistock Square in London from typhoid fever, though "his health was never very strong and he...avoided social gatherings" (British Chess Magazine, Feb., 1882), preferring (according to the Bristol Mercury and Post's obit. of 17th January)...
 " get into a quiet corner at Simpson's Divan, to talk chess and play chess for hours together. His knowledge of the great players of a past generation  was so extensive...and [was] constantly poured out, enlivened with a flood of dry humour." 
He had been reckoned by Edge to be the "best English player". However, the claim in the Bristol Mercury that he was "the only player who anything like held his own against Morphy" provoked, on the very next day, a Sir Herbert Gussett-style outburst from Oswin Grainger Esq., of 16, High Street, Worcester to denounce this "complete insult to his superiors Lowenthal, Hairwitz (sic) and Anderssen", and so on and so forth.  

Boden's biography has been well researched in the chess literature, for example in the excellent Yorkshire Chess History site, from which we learn that he was the fourth of ten, and may be more, children. He was born on 4 May 1826 in Retford, Yorkshire, but lived in Hull, and according to his obit. in the Hull Packet "previously to 1849, when he went to London, he was the strongest player at the Hull Club".  He remained an Honorary Member, "one of the most illustrious on its roll". Hull? Didn't Anthony Rosenbaum fetch up there? Yes, but not perhaps until 1851 when SSB was possibly already elsewhere winning the "Provincial Tournament" in London, the secondary contest coincidental with the Great Exhibition.  

So Boden had come to London in his twenties; he worked as a railway accountant at Nine Elms in Vauxhall, where a new locomotive and rolling stock workshop had been built in 1839 near to the London and South West Railway terminus (all long since gone).

Nine Elms imposing railway terminus, as was.
Pic from the Vauxhall Civic Society   
So far so conventional, but a legacy made him a man of independent means whereby he could pursue his métier as an accomplished watercolourist, dealer and connoisseur. It is not clear exactly when he came into the money, but I've not identified any artwork dated earlier than 1862, when he would have been 36 years of age. Before we get on to that, let's dip into his book of 1851, commended by Staunton, and popular at the time as per its title.  

We've have seen before that many Victorian chessers were partial to a decent blow-out when a-clubbing they did go; but Boden dispenses a note of caution for the bon viveur...          
"No one can play well just after a hearty dinner, and between skilful players we should think this as bad as giving the odds of a knight." 
...which sounds like advice born of discomforted experience, relevant even today. Also germane for the modern student of the game are these sage recommendations for post-game cordiality and forbearance advocated by Boden quoting from a certain Mr Penn's "Maxim's and Hints for Anglers and Chess Players" (a "very dear little morsel at 5 shillings" - and I think that's "dear" as in "beloved"):
I.  "Win as often as you can, but never make any display of insulting joy on the occasion. When you cannot win, lose (tho' you may not like it), with good temper. Men usually play as well as they can; they are glad when they win, and sorry when they lose.
II. "If your adversary, after you have won a game, wishes to prove that you have done so in consequence of some fault of his, rather than by your own good play, you need not enter into much argument on the subject, whilst he explains to the bystanders the mode by which he might have won the game, but did not.
III. "Nor need you make yourself uneasy, if your adversary should console himself by pointing out a shorter and more masterly mode by which you may have won. Listen patiently, he cannot prove that your way of winning was not good enough."         
Which all creates the impression that Boden was a proper Victorian gent., attentive to civility and courtesy beside the board, even if he chewed you up on it.  He practiced what he preached, and was "chivalrous to the highest degree as a combatant...he never made idle excuses for a defeat, or depreciated the skill of an opponent" according to the BCM's obit.

Another affectionate reminiscence takes us on to his art:
"Peace to that gentle spirit whose mortal remains were consigned, on the 17th January to their resting place in Woking Cemetery, close to the hills and valleys which he loved so well and painted so sweetly, and in the enjoyment of which he and I passed some of our happiest days together."
So wrote George MacDonnell in his Chess Life Pictures of 1883 with this further detail, familiar in part from the BCM obit:
"He was a water-colour painter of no mean skill, and many of his drawings would compare not unfavourably with the smaller productions of Birkett-Foster. He was a recognised connoisseur in the Early English School, and his judgment upon a David Cox, a De Wint and other famous masters was often sought by Christie's and Manson. Several art critiques which he contributed to the Field evinced a thorough knowledge of his subject, and excited no small admiration."
So Boden was in the thick of the art world of the time, although in the art literature of today there is hardly a mention: just a short note in the Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists (2002) which also makes that flattering association of Boden with Myles Birkett-Foster (1825-1899), and notes his occasional adoption of a freer style in the manner of Peter De Wint (1784-1849). The British Museum has a few Bodens (see Note 1), otherwise his work seems now to be exclusively in private collections. It appears occasionally at auction, even, fittingly, at Christie's. The Blouin Art Sales Index records 15 of his works up for sale over the last 30 years or so, one of which (Norwich by the River; 1875) may be the one purchased by Eric Fisher of Hull which appears in a chess context here. Boden exhibited seven watercolours at the Royal Society of British Artists between 1865 and 1873 (see Note 2).

So what are we to make of his work? Much of it has the gentility, not to say saccharine sentimentality, of the fashionable Victorian watercolouring of the age - at least, that is how it might strike us today.

Samuel Boden. No date or title.
British Museum Collection    
As above, many of his surviving works do not show a date of execution, nor identify the place depicted - this one looks generic, it could be anywhere and nowhere in particular.

So Boden was clearly much more than a Sunday painter, both in terms of output and skill. He was a dab hand - just look at that foliage. Writing about English watercolourists of this period Richard Green (1976) says that the:
"...minutely detailed stipple technique [became] the generally accepted norm during the Victorian period, an age which attached much importance to the solid virtue of hard work. There was no formula more certain of success that the application of this technique to the scenes of rustic life in the home counties, which is exactly what Myles Birket Foster put into practice...becoming the most popular and imitated water-colourist of his day."           
Allowing for poor reproduction we can see what Mr Green is getting at here:
Left: Samuel Boden "A country cottage with peasant, etc." From here
Right: Myles Birkett-Foster At the Cottage Door. For context see this informative blog
You have to admire the technique even if you don't care for the subject matter, or the world view it reflects: stippling aplenty showing untroubled rural folk performing their chores nestling among rose-clad cottages;  arcadia peeps through the trees; the church reminds us of to whom we should be thankful. It's all a world away from the grime and desolation of the uprooted industrial working class in its urban squalor, or the grind of rural poverty as mechanisation took its toll. These well-scrubbed kiddies don't have to sweep chimneys for a crust.

The obits. mention Boden's erudition concerning the artists of the period, including David Cox (1783-1859),  a weatherman who knew which way the wind blew. Here is one of his draughty efforts.

Cox (1845). Sun Wind and Rain.
From here
By contrast nothing much moves in a Boden, or a Birkett-Foster; only the smoke from a homely hearth stirs in their suspended world. Nothing moves, nor any social change with it.

Occasionally though, as the Dictionary says, Boden relaxed into a broader style reminiscent of De Wint, and so you may get the full picture, here is a Boden/De Wint face-off.

Left: Boden, "Landscape with hay cart and sheep" (nd) From here 
Right: De Wint, The Cornfield (1815). From here
The manner and subject are of a muchness, down to a hay cart heading west. Boden, though, prefers to foreground some dozing sheep rather than corn sheaves - more cuddly I suppose. But at least there is a feel of the plein air, the real world, and not mere confection. As reproductions go, this one does Boden rather more justice than others in this post.

Boden also repays comparison with an English watercolourist of the previous generation, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), whose "jigsaw" style of interlocking blocks of colour contains the seeds of abstraction, or so it often remarked, a hundred years before its time. This mention of Cotman is flagrant self-indulgence because, of all the English watercolourists, it is his work that I'd like most on my wall. Boden, as a connoisseur, would have known of him, and might have absorbed aspects of his style. Thus here Boden puts aside for a moment that finicky Birkett-Foster dabbing and inches instead towards Cotmanesque slabbing.
Left: Boden. No date or title. British Museum Collection
Right: Cotman. Greta Bridge (Various versions 1805 to 10). This one from here
It is better not to overdo this as the Boden pales alongside the Cotman ("one of the most perfect watercolours ever made"), and not only because of his subdued palette. Nonetheless, the unfussiness, and suppression of detail, creates a chunky backdrop for the two characters to steal the show in answering counterpoint. Seeing the pictures together leads one to wonder whether one of the signature motifs of the English watercolour school was, along with a well-placed cottage, an eye-catching, and uncommonly white, cow.

Boden, from Chess Life Pictures in 1883
Looking back over Boden's comportment at play and practice in paint you could say that they are commensurate in the following way: in both he was attentive to his social milieu, was disinclined to shock, and sought to enhance the unalloyed pleasure of the occasion - whether for clients, audience, or opponents. As George MacDonnell put it: he was a "gentle spirit", and that could be his memorial. He may be half-remembered for his mate and his gambit (innovations perhaps); but for his competent but derivative paintings he will probably remain half-forgotten.

British Chess Magazine for 1882 is digitised here. Boden's obit is at pp 54-6.
See the British Museum's collection of five Bodens here.
Boden's 1851 book is digitised here.
Green, R. (1976) in British Water-colours in the Laing Art Gallery. Pub. Tyne and Wear CC.
Mallalieu, H.L. (2002) Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists up to 1920. Pub. Woodbridge.

1. Two of the BM's Bodens are chromolithographs, presumably from a portfolio (as the items are numbered 3 and 4) entitled "Boden's Paysage". They were acquired by the BM in 1870. Its handwritten ledger of the time records that they were accepted under the Copyright Act, suggesting a serious publication - unfortunately the rest of the portfolio seems not to be in their collection, and I can find no reference to it elsewhere. Tantalising.

 2. The Royal Society of British Artists 1824-1893. Published by the Antique Collectors' Club in 1975 lists seven of Boden's works in their exhibitions, giving titles that identify specific locations, although it is not clear whether the works duplicate any of those listed by Blouin. They are:
1865: Pyrford Lock, Surrey;
1866: Chiddingfold, Surrey (x2);
1870/1: Woking Canal, Surrey; a location in Essex.
1873: Village of Aylesford; Priory of Aylesford, Kent.
It also gives three London addresses for Boden: 57, Pratt Street, Hampstead Road (1865); 60, Brook Street, Bond Street (1866, and 1870/1); 3, Camden Studios, Camden Street (1873).

See Chess in Art Index for more artistically talented chessers.

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