Saturday, October 23, 2010

Every Picture Tells A Story: And This Is Where The Story Begins.

Blog 1. For the full sequence of posts in this story, please click here to get to the Index.

This is the start of a story, a story about a journey in search of a picture. It is a fine picture, though not perhaps a great one, and it has a lot to say. In the episodes that follow we will reveal the facts we have discovered about it (and some speculation as well) and the adventures we have had along the way.

We begin in 2008. Richard Tillett, my fellow sleuth from the Streatham and Brixton Chess Club's Department of Obscure Chess Pictures, is rummaging in a junk shop in West Norwood when he spots an out-of-print book on the history of interior decoration. It has some pictures of 19th century interiors with folk playing chess. And it's only five quid. Out comes his wallet.

Back home one particular picture grabs his attention. It shows a group of English gents, straight out of Jane Austen, sitting together playing chess. There are three games in progress, and a seventh figure stands apart observing one of the games.

Pride and prejudice - not a chess picture and only one gent.
Richard wants to know more, but a quick internet search reveals little. No references to the picture or its present location, and next to nothing about the artist. The picture and its painter seemed to have vanished from the record.

Fast forward to a cold winter's afternoon in December 2009 and a small café by Clapham Common in South London where, as some local people will tell you, they used to play open-air chess.

Chess on Clapham Common in 1986.
It is here that Richard introduces me to the picture. Egged on by fellow blogger Jonathan B. we wonder why chess-in-art aficionados haven't noticed it before. Maybe books on interior decoration are not the first place they would look for chess paintings (being more inclined, if their thoughts ever turned to interior design, to reach for the latest IKEA catalogue).

Here it is:

This is our picture as it appears in plate 139 of the book, An Illustrated History of Interior Design: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau by Mario Praz (Thames & Hudson, 1964 reprinted 1982). It's not a very good reproduction because we've had to scan it from the book (with apologies to the publishers), but more images of the picture will follow. The picture extends over two pages - hence the weird bit in the middle. To help with the detail, here is the text box.

As we sat warming ourselves on our Grand Lattes with extra chocolate, the questions flooded in: what more could we find out about the artist, could we find the picture and see it in the flesh, who were the chess players, why was it painted?

Our answers to these, and all the other questions we didn't then know we would ask, will be revealed in a series of occasional posts over the coming weeks and months.

This has turned into a substantial research project. We have scoured the internet and consulted many people who share our fascination with this picture. We've travelled far in our quest and we've got a parking ticket to prove it.

We've been everywhere, man.
Richard even attended a proper auction, with a bloke with a gavel, as part of our adventure.

Many questions remain tantalisingly unresolved, and we are hoping that answers will emerge as time goes on, because the story is still unfolding as we write.

This is a collaborative effort, involving many people, and we will be acknowledging their contributions. Our next instalment will follow soon.


Pride and Prejudice illustration by Hugh Thomson to the novel by Jane Austen ca. 1894. It depicts the Bennet family at home. Sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

Chess on Clapham Common photo by kind permission of Billy Rizcallah.

Thames and Hudson for the picture from the Praz volume detailed above.

Herefordshire Council for the PCN! And thanks also to them for cancelling it when we pointed out we had paid for the parking, but the ticket had blown off the dashboard.

Chess In Art Index


ejh said...

I look forward to this, but in the mean time, another tantalising question - can any of the Clapham chessplayers be identified?

Martin Smith said...

The bespectacled chap looks vaguely familiar from London chess. Someone else may be able to put a name to him.

The chap in the right is Samuel Beckett :-)

Martin Smith said...

BTW for an interesting (and detailed) account of the history of chess in South London have a look at Battersea Chess Club's history page.

This comment is fascinating: "The years' are strewn with wrecks of chess organisations: Balham, Kennington, Nightingale Lane and Putney are but four of many famous Surrey Clubs now broken up." Amazing that there may have been five clubs (if you include Battersea) within, what, a five mile radius - between the wars presumably.

Jonathan B said...

I would like to point out that my involvement with this project ended long before the dynamic duo turned to the dark side and got involved with such criminal activities as collecting parking tickets.

For shame.

Martin Smith said...

You can't get out of it that easily, Jonathan. Just remember: we paid for your Grand Latte.