Saturday, July 09, 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story: A Piece of Chess History

Number 14 in a continuing series. This one mainly by Richard Tillett.

Is this a portrait of the earliest provincial chess club in Britain?

Ever since Thomas Leeming’s portrait of the gentlemen of the Hereford Chess Club first came to our attention in 2008, we’ve wondered if this could be the earliest chess club outside London. We’ve been to the ECF chess library at Hastings to study the literature on the subject (such as is it)… we’ve asked some knowledgeable chess chaps (Brian Denman, Richard James and Ray Collett)… and now we can venture an answer (if tentative) to our question.

Yes, it does seem to be the earliest known provincial chess club in Britain. Almost.

In his splendid book on the history of chess in Brighton, Brian Denman tells us that the first major provincial club was formed in Manchester in 1817. But Hereford Chess Club predates that by five years, being founded on 29 November 1812. We discovered this on our first visit to the Hereford Museum and Art Gallery to see the picture, when the curator showed us a copy of the inscription which was on the back of the canvas until it was relined.

It may still be true that Manchester had the first major provincial chess club, as Hereford CC only had seven members when the picture was painted. However, the existence of a provincial club at such an early date may prompt chess historians to rethink the spread of organised chess outside London. Other chess clubs may have been starting up at this time on the modest Hereford model, but records have not survived. After all, we only know about the Hereford club from the picture – we’ve not been able to find any mention of it in the various archives and libraries that we and our friends at the present-day Hereford Chess club have consulted.

The daddy of them all: Parsloe’s in St James’s Street, London was the first organised chess club in Britain, founded in 1774. Philidor played this blindfold match at Parsloe’s in 1794 (the turbaned figure on the left is the Turkish ambassador).

So Martin and I are claiming that Hereford Chess Club in its 1812 incarnation represents A Piece of Chess History. OK, not a very big piece - a pawn perhaps - but history nonetheless. We have some support for our claim from no less an authority than Brian Denman, who deems this to be an ‘important discovery’.

But there is another claimant to the ‘earliest provincial chess club’ title. Philip Sergeant, in his history of British chess published in 1934, refers to a shortlived club at an Oxford college. Brasen Nose Chess Club was formed in 1810 by an Oxford surgeon, William Tuckwell. It seems to have lasted for only two years, and to have been more interested in sociability and supper than chess. As it happens, Thomas Leeming was himself in Oxford around this time when he painted a portrait of another Oxford surgeon, John Grosvenor. Maybe the artist, networker that he was, socialised with the Brasen Nose chessers. It’s even possible that he is mentioned in the records of the club, which apparently survive… and thus another avenue of Leeming research opens up (will this ever end?).

So the Hereford Chess Club of 1812 is part of the early flowering of organised chess in Britain, the first wave of a movement that was to expand across the country during the following decades. If anyone knows of other early provincial clubs operating at this time, we’d be fascinated to hear from you.

Thanks to Richard James, Brian Denman and Ray Collett.
Thanks also to Alan Leary and Les Collard of Hereford Chess Club.
Painting reproduced by kind permission of Hereford Museum and Art Gallery, Herefordshire Heritage Services ©

Brian Denman, Brighton Chess
Philip W Sergeant, A Century of British Chess

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