Friday, September 04, 2015

Played on Squares (Bloomsbury and Chess) 1: Keynes

This series is a bit off the pace, but the idea of investigating the chess-playing tendencies of the Bloomsbury Group only occurred to me as the three-part TV docudrama Life in Squares was beginning on BBC2 back in July 2015. I had an inkling that they played a bit of chess having come across two of them at it in a photograph a few years ago (see here). So I watched the series with optimism. But, alas, the film's makers overlooked the exciting tele-visual possibilities offered by our noble game: there was not a pawn pushed in anger, nor a piece taken with passion. Hence this series of posts to put the record straight.

Now out on DVD
A close inspection of their writings suggests that many of the Bloomsberries could and did play, though as we all know, having the moves doesn't mean you can "really play" chess; and it is not so surprising, perhaps, that they should know, even if superficially, a game with such an aura of depth and profundity - it was likely to have been a class/public school thing. This series, though, won't examine all of the several Bloomsbury chessers. Instead, the focus will rest on just three or four for whom chess was perhaps a bit more serious, even if for one or two of these it wasn't much more than a compulsive pastime. For one or two others, however, chess was, as I discovered, a serious diversion at some time in their lives.

Collectively these four will be the hooks upon which the episodes will hang. Around these main chess characters other Bloomsberries will be slotted in, so long as it doesn't get too confusing or protracted. Incidentally, in following the chess in Bloomsbury trail I have wandered occasionally from the straight and narrow to note some associates of the Group. They turn out, here and there, to be worth the detour. We will follow the characters, whether hard-core or peripheral, in a very approximate chronological order.

I hope that the series will appeal to, and interest, Bloomsbury Group aficionados and chessers alike - but as the Venn overlap is likely to be small I have provided explanations of what the others' fuss is all about. At Appendix 1 there is a chess player's Bloomsbury Briefing of my own fashioning; I hope it will be helpful. Reciprocal briefings for Bloomsburyphiles on the chess will occur as we go along. Appendix 2 to this first episode explains how I approached the task in hand; and thereby give an explanation also of its shortcomings. There is also a list of sources at the end of each episode, so references intialised in the main text can be decoded accordingly.

Because of all these preliminaries, this first episode - including the Appendices - is rather long. But it has got a bit of your actual chess. Other episodes in this fortnightly series may be rather expansive as well.


"Talked in circles, loved in triangles, lived in squares" is how Dorothy Parker famously, and geometrically, described their lifestyle (dated to the 1920s - original documentation, anybody?). The sources list thirteen original Bloomsbury dramatis personae, linked by university (Cambridge), marriage (here and there; now and then), and perhaps, above all, close friendship (BG p.113). After university they clustered as near neighbours close to the British Museum, when 1912-14 is given by one Bloomsbury original, Leonard Woolf, as the gestation period (BG p.111), though seeds were planted a few years earlier. The thirteen are detailed in Appendix 1: the surnames Woolf and Keynes are probably the most well-known.

Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), the economist, was first-wave "old Bloomsbury"; the group extended with subsequent generations, accruing maybe another 20-odd in its "extended family" until it dissipated post-WW2. Maynard Keynes himself could play, as suggested by his 1923 biographical essay on Andrew Bonar Law (Prime Minister 1922-23, and a keen chess player).

Bonar Law (hands crossed) looks on in 1922. From here 
In his essay (EB p. 41) Keynes deploys an extended chess metaphor to describe Bonar Law's "great skill in controversy", which was due "not only to the acuteness of [Bonar Law's] mind....but also to his practice of limiting the argument to the pieces, so to speak, actually on the board and to the two or three moves ahead which could be definitely foreseen." Keynes goes on to explain why the figure of speech is justified: "Mr. Bonar Law avowedly carried his well-known passion for the technique of chess into the problems of politics; and it is natural to use chess metaphors to describe the workings of his mind." It takes one to know one.

Maynard Keynes (in 1912)
From a photo by Vanessa Bell
(From WikiCommons)
There is also this fictional account, set shortly after the death of Edward VII in 1910, of "Vanessa [Bell's] usually sunny room [in Bloomsbury] in semi-darkness. Curtains had been drawn and lights turned down. Lytton [Strachey] and Maynard were stretched out on the hearth in front of a pile of glowing coals next to a chessboard upon which sat sixteen wineglasses, some filled and some empty..." (EA p.199). This vignette has the ring of truth - those empty glasses - but if based on fact it suggests that Maynard may not have taken his chess too seriously.

However, that is as far as we go with Maynard. To find our first subject we must retrace our steps. Like so many, Maynard would have learnt the moves as a boy, taught by pater perhaps. Indeed, John Neville Keynes (1852-1949), his father, who had been at Cambridge in the 1870s, was a chesser au fond: in 1875 he had been President of the Cambridge University Chess Club. So, for its first chess hero, this series takes the liberty of discussing someone who could not have been a member of Bloomsbury (however loosely defined), but who was responsible, you might say, for bringing part of it into being.

Keynes Senior is documented playing against Oxford in matches from 1873 (when the Oxbridge ties began - they continue today) through to 1878 (CBC p.344-5). Keynes was on board 1 for Cambridge from 1875 to 1878. The 1874 match is reported in the Westminster Papers: A Monthly Journal of Whist, Games of Skill and the Drama. It was played at the City of London Chess Club: "amid every indication of undiminished popular interest...[it] attracted the attendance of almost every person of note in the Metropolitan Chess world." Blackburne and Zukertort, among the strongest players in the world at the time, were there giving simultaneous and blindfold displays "in a crowded room...heavy with the smoke of the 'fragrant weed'." The chess was followed by the usual excellent supper for players, and officials such as Steinitz (also among the world chess élite). He was umpire for the match. The occasion was topped off with speeches and loyal toasts &c.

This was (note for Bloomsburyphiles) during the great mid/late Victorian surge of popular interest in the game when chess clubs were forming up and down the country in the expanding suburbs and beyond. Central London, of course, had its venerable chess clubs and "resorts" (drop-in cafés and restaurants such as Simpson's Divan) since a long way back in the early 1800s.    

J. N. Keynes gets a mention in the Westminster Papers of April 1874 wherein his games, among those of some others, were deemed "worthy of perusal." His first round effort is on the internet here (where the play of his Oxford opponent doesn't impress - was that the best they could do?), and the last (of three) was adjudicated by Steinitz as a win for Keynes (playing Black) after only 16 moves (supper was ready!). True, Keynes was a pawn up with a better position, but the Paper's chess annotators Wisker and/or Zukertort judged it "quite impossible to prove that Black's game is won". Steinitz had been coaching the Cambridge team (as reported Papers p. 245), but perish the thought that this might have coloured his judgement.

Below is a win by J.N.K. from a later match in 1878 (possibly the first time the game has seen the light of day for nigh on 140 years). Active chess players today will look back at the primitive opening in mild amusement, but it was, according to the contemporaneous notes - see below - from The Field (and reproduced in The Chess Monthly, from which this comes), cutting edge theory at the time. Things have moved on a bit since.



The biography of J.N.Keynes (LTJNK p 24) quotes from his diary which says that he "meddled with chess problems", and gives the first entry for 1874 in which he 'boasted' (the biographer's word): "a problem of mine is published in the Westminster Papers for this month." This must be the one:
That's a White Rook on c3; 
and a White Bishop on f4, and another one on g6.
The solution is in the notes under WP below: but whether chess problems are your thing or not (they were all the rage in Victorian times; with a loyal band of followers still today), some of the withering comments in the February 1874 issue are worth a perverse look: "The idea is almost identical with that of the famous Indian Problem"; "An old bone picked pretty clean before now"; "The idea has been worked to death". Undeterred, J.N.K. had another published in the April issue; and may be found enthusiastically, and unfailingly, commenting on the efforts of fellow composers right through 1874, and no doubt beyond.

So, although not a Bloomsberry as such, John Neville Keynes certainly played on squares, and his chess credentials are impeccable. His biography shows that he had played chess at prep school, when he "kept detailed records of [his] games" (LTJNK p.3), and the same for cricket, and fives, and backgammon. He played as an undergraduate at London and Cambridge Universities, as we've seen; and in retirement he played "with old friends" (LTJNK p. 305). What is more it didn't inhibit his academic career at Cambridge up to 1925 where he published two academic works one of which was on political economy, a discipline for which his more famous son is renowned. In 1946 the son predeceased his father by two years: Maynard was in poor health and exhausted by his efforts at the end of WW2 to set up the IMF so as to stabilise the financial world order.

Keynes Senior has provided an encouragingly chessical start to the series. We'll try and get a bit closer to Bloomsbury proper in the next episodes.

The next episodes of Played on Squares are  2: Fry; 3: Fry, part 2; 4. Woolf;  5. Strachey; 6. Empire Days 7. Miss Strachey's Feeling For Snow.

Appendix 1
A Bloomsbury Briefing
The precursor to the "Group" (as a sociological designation the term is contested) is to be found in certain members of the ancient, and secretive, Apostles discussion circle at Cambridge University in the late years of the 19th, and early years of the 20th centuries, in which the philosophy of G.E.Moore held sway: its hallmark was the imperative to pursue truth and honesty, especially in personal action and aesthetic appreciation, through radical interrogation of premise and motive. This is recognisable as the root of the Bloomsbury house style. After university half dozen or so of these Apostles remained friends, and drew in siblings and others of a like mind around their geographical centre in Bloomsbury.

By the 20s the tradition of a formalised discussion circle was to be found in a Thursday evening "Memoir Club". Talk and conversation was the glue of the "Bloomsbury Group" which had now attracted others not rooted in Moore's tenets, and all were immersed in one way or another in their own métiers (writing, painting, design, publishing, economics, politics). As new personalities adhered some of the originals died. The group proselytized no creed, but shared a "climate" of thought (BG p. 113-4). Truth, friendship and beauty were the touchstones of their collective consciousness and modus vivendi - though they were not a monolith intellectually, nor without tension and friction interpersonally.

It is arguable that for some their guiding principles did not withstand the road test of real life, especially in the complex web of their personal relationships. Nevertheless their achievements make a lasting legacy that is still with us today: the ground-breaking novels of Virginia Woolf, the avant-garde aesthetics of Roger Fry and Clive Bell, the modern art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, the innovatory biographies of Lytton Strachey, the progressive economic theories of Maynard Keynes, and the internationalist politics of Leonard Woolf.

These are the 13 of the original "old Bloomsbury" as given by Leonard Woolf  (BG p.111),  by year of birth, with my labels: Roger Fry (1866-1934) art theorist; Desmond MacCarthy (1877-1952) literary critic; Vanessa Bell [née Stephen] (1879-1961) artist; E.Morgan Forster (1879-1970) novelist; Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) biographer; Saxon Sydney-Turner (1880-1962) civil servant; Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) essayist and activist; Clive Bell (1881-1964) art critic; Molly MacCarthy (1882-1953) writer; Virginia Woolf [née Stephen] (1882-1941) writer; J.Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) economist; Adrian Stephen (1883-1948) writer and psychoanalyst; Duncan Grant (1885-1978) artist.

By the 1930s another 20 or so names are associated, more or less loosely, with Bloomsbury (BG p.iii).

Appendix 2
Methodology
I thought that I should explain, especially to any Bloomsbury scholars looking in, how I have approached this series, and its shortcomings. I have relied pretty much on the writings of the Bloombury Group, about themselves, and about each other. On top of which there is the vast and ever expanding secondary literature. Some of this material is digitised and it is possible to search for, and pick up, chess references electronically. Otherwise conventional indexes, though thorough, seldom list "chess" - hence I have resorted to skimming to try and find them. Inevitably I will have missed some (and would welcome having them pointed out). As I am not a Bloomsbury scholar this approach is of course somewhat superficial, especially as I have not investigated the extensive unpublished archives in the British Library, Sussex University, etc.  Moreover, being neither steeped in the material, nor a dedicated Bloomsbury buff, the overlapping and intermingling of the lives of the group and their associates are often, for me, difficult to follow. There may have been misunderstandings on my part, and I would welcome correctives to the blog comment box, please (with an indication of whether or not they are intended for publication). I hope to be accurate: but this is a blog, and intended to be a good read. It is not an academic paper.

References/etc
BG: S.P.Rosenbaum. The Bloomsbury Group: A collection of Memoirs, Commentary and Criticism. (1975) Toronto.
CBC: P.W.Sergeant. A Centuary of British Chess (1934) London
EA: J.C.Morris The End of Arrogance.  (2005) New York.
EB:  J.M Keynes Essays in Biography Ed. G.Keynes (1933) New York. 
LTJNK: P.Deane Life and Times of J.Neville Keynes: A Beacon in the Tempest  (2001) Cheltenham
WP Westminster Papers: Solution to problem given as 1. B to Q Kt sq  P to Q 3; 2. R to Q B 2  K moves;  3. Mates accordingly.

On Bonar Law and chess see here and here 


With thanks for their assistance to Richard James and Jane Winter.

History Index              


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