Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mr. Rosenbaum's Chess Picture. Part 5: Pass

In the previous episode of this series on Anthony Rosenbaum’s mammoth group portrait of 47 Victorian chess clubbers (plus assorted waiters, a pantheon of deceased chess heroes, and an automaton) we encountered John Ormerod Scarlett Thursby, the first owner of the painting; his for the price of a raffle ticket – a bargain at 5 guineas. Today, after getting to know JOST a bit better, we will trace the fortunes of the picture, and the passage it followed from Manchester Square in December 1880, to North Wales in December 2012. 

To get up to speed let’s have another look at Mr Rosenbaum's tableau: this time as it appeared in Chess magazine in March 1993 in an article by Gareth Williams. It was in black and white (see the original colour - at the end of this earlier episode). Thursby is not in it, as we have noted before. But Rosenbaum is. As the original artist's key (which what I assume it to be) shows, our man is picked out as Number 13.    

Click on any image to enlarge
But who was the man who wasn't there: John Thursby? 

In spite of his youth (he was 19 years old) and, one supposes, his preoccupation with his university studies (he got a First in Political Economy at Cambridge), Mr T was already making his mark in his home town of Burnley by starting an instructional chess column in The Burnley Express in 1879, and proposing a local chess club. By 1880, he was already lauded as (with my emphasis): 
“the well-known problem composer, whose name is familiar to readers as a contributor to the problem department of The Chess-Monthly.”

JOST in 1903 (from BCM) 
In fact the mag had shown his work as early as 1879, and he is featured some years later, in March 1893, with this fulsome appreciation: 
“Young Thursby acquired his knowledge of the game during his early college days at Eton, and for his scientific training and sound style he is indebted to the Rev.W. Wayte [number 33 – MS] who at that time was Professor at Eton College. Mr Thursby had cultivated the game and the problem with equal impartiality, with perhaps, a slight predilection for the latter speciality. He represented his University in the match against Oxford in 1881 [he beat G. E. Wainwright 1.5 v 0.5 - MS]… Subsequently he furnished the reviews of our problem tournaments; whilst he supplied us with liberal contributions of his problems.”
So JOST was well-known on the chess scene: he was a precocious and prodigious problemista and had published a collection of his Seventy-five Chess Problems back in 1883, when he was only 22. Here is a selection of them: White has overwhelming force, but must use it with optimal efficiency. They are all 3-movers (solutions, should you need them, are after the text jump at the end). 

Thursby (1883) numbers 47, 51 and 53. 
In the Preface to his book, Thursby, with due modesty, says “[I do] not claim for my problems any special or extraordinary profundity, for I do not intend to set myself up as a rival to other Chess authors…” he offers them as simple “amusement and pleasure." And, he continues, he has "always been treated with the greatest courtesy by every Chess Editor with whom I have corresponded…” - hear now the silent 'but' -  “...I regret to say, with one notable exception.” 

So somebody had got up his nose good and proper, though as befits a gentleman Thursby doesn’t name names. This public denunciation, and the pre-emptive denial of unseemly rivalry, implies that beneath the luxuriant efflorescence of Victorian chess problemania was a writhing viper's nest of competitiveness and plagiarism. Even the affable Anthony Rosenbaum was to fall into this can of worms, as we'll see in the last post in the series. Sadly the bloom on Thursby's problem-setting career seems to have faded by the time of Gitten's guide to composers of the day The Chess Bouquet of 1897, and no specimens of his are on display therein. 

We now know, over 100 years later, that young Thursby had a future ahead of him, as no doubt he had been brought up to expect. He was big in the burgeoning Victorian mill town of Burnley: a captain of industry (coal, railways, banking); a civic dignitary (Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff of the County, etc); and a man of sport (golf and cricket). His political ambitions, however, Tory of course, came to naught, though not for want of trying as he lost two local elections to the Liberals in the late 1880s.

For other divertissements he owned race horses and collected art, including this atmospheric work.

Peter Graham RA (1836-1921)
The Fowlers Crag (1887)
Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum, Burnley.
Perhaps, in this he saw himself: a rock standing proud, at the still point of a churning world. A Baronetcy and a baronial hall were his, even if by inheritance. Thus Sir John Ormerod Scarlett Thursby Bart. was very comfortably installed, a very model of a modern English gentleman, and highly esteemed by Victorian-cum-Edwardian society. Flags flew from public buildings, bells pealed, and fog horns boomed on his wedding-day in 1888. Honours and sinecures were his, as was that remarkable chess painting from 1880.   

But JOST hadn't neglected his chess. MacDonnell mentions him as an habitué of the Divan in 1882, and The Chess-Monthly noted that in the 1890s he had “taken more interest in practical play” and could be seen at the British Chess Club (
between light duties at his London legal practice) often “in a serious bout with…Donisthorpe” (number 43 above; the spot-light turns on him in a couple of weeks).

In the new century Sir John was active at regional, national and even international levels, though apparently in official, or sponsorship capacities, rather than active play: Monte Carlo 1902;  the Northern Chess Union; and from 1905 he was President of the nascent BCF until his death in 1920. He was much in demand as a Problem Tournament judge, at which, said the BCM in 1903, he proved to be “a conscientious seeker after justice” - an admirable quality, by any standard, to discover in a magistrate.  

Sir JOST Bart., cutting a dash in 1907 (from Vanity Fair)
But more importantly for our story he was, as The Chess-Monthly reported in 1893, “the owner of Rosenbaum’s oil painting of chess celebrities” - which, admittedly, we already knew -  moreover that it was “on view at the British Chess Club, Mr. Thursby having lent it to the club ever since it was established" (in 1885, by "moving spirit" Leopold Hoffer # 23)  - which we most definitely didn’t. Much credit goes to Sir John for the gesture, and his service to the chess community more generally. Mind you, seeing his preference for the turbulent cliff-scape above one wonders if he might have been well-pleased to have Rosenbaum's serried ranks on parade elsewhere.  

That was 1893. In 1898 The British Chess Club was teased by J. Arnold Green as “much less a fighting club than a great gathering-place for the wealthy middle-class chess-player, who loves his dinner as well as his game”, echoing MacDonnell's quip that "the most successful clubs are dinner-givers".  J. Arnold Green's scoff might claim corroboration from the report (The Field of May 19th, 1888) of  BCC members, playing away to the Cercle des Échecs de Paris, enjoying a "sumptuous déjeumer at Ledoyan's on the Champs Elysées, invited by Prince Balaschoff."  

(From here)
In spite of Arnold Green's dyspepsia the BCC did lay on lashings of healthy looking chess, even in London. But he had a point, and the dinner/chess connection will re-occur in this series.

There was a good deal of dual membership with other clubs (like bon viveur Donisthorpe - him again -  who was the BCC's vice-president in 1895, and indeed as Anthony Rosenbaum had been till his death in 1888), anboth the BCC and the CLCC had the same President, Sir George Newnes M.P., which “favoured the harmonious co-operation of the two clubs,” (and he, too, will crop up again in a later episode).

Now, the reason for going in to this business about club intertwining is that it helps to explain how the painting got from one (the BCC) to the other (the CLCC). With the demise of the BCC in or around the '14-'18 War, its members and/or its effects (Rosenbaum's picture among them) were absorbed by its near neighbour the CLCC. This was the view of E.R.G. Cordingley (1905-1962) expressed nearly seventy years ago in a letter of 18 December 1943 to the NPG (in their Archive): the picture "passed, when this club [i.e.the BCC - MS] died quietly and almost unnoticed of atrophy early in this century, to the CLCC". 

ERGC wasn't really around when it all happened, of course, and there is another account set down at about the same time as his: by A .M. Fox writing his reminiscences, in the BCM of February 1941, of the BCC as it was "50 or 60 years ago". He says that:      
"As the old habitués passed away or left London, the [BCC's] membership diminished and eventually it amalgamated with, or was swallowed by, a sporting club in St. James' Square, where chess was, to a great extent, superseded by Bridge."
Which muddies the waters a little. Perhaps, then, the BCC's rump membership, such as it was, went off in several directions, even if Rosenbaum's painting could, of necessity, go in just one. Throughout these shape-shiftings and reconfigurations we can assume that Sir John was keeping an eye on his painting, and its installation at the CLCC would have been secured by his holding office as their vice-president, according to Sergeant, until his death in 1920.  

Sir John left paintings (including The Fowlers Crag) to the town of Burnley, "a generous legacy" to the BCF, and...Rosenbaum's picture next appears in the record hanging at the CLCC in 1926. In answer to the question whether there was a formal bequest de jure from the JOST estate in 1920, or whether is simply remained there de facto: pass. Let's just be thankful to him that, because of his dedication to the institutions of chess, the painting stayed in general circulation and didn’t disappear into a private collection to be lost forever to public view. 

The 1926 reference is in the obituary of Amos Burn in the BCM that year. Later, also in the BCM, in 1932 O. C. Müller (in his reminiscences of Simpson’s) recalls “this interesting picture” and says that it “is now in the possession of the City of London Chess Club.” That’s fifty years after it was painted.

The next step in the painting’s journey (if only a mile up the road) was taken as the CLCC was de-cluttering  in readiness to merge, after nearly 90 years of existence, into the National Chess Centre. We are now in 1939. Let's now meet F.G. Hamilton-Russell (1867-1941), second son of 8th Viscount Boyne, another wealthy chap inclined to generous benefaction to whom we should be thankful. His name is now associated with the international Team Olympiad trophy, and a chess league for London Societies and Clubs (such as the RAC, the Hurlingham, etc). He was a frequent tournament competitor.             

F. G. Hamilton-Russell from BCM 1926
According to a letter of 13 June 1939 in the NPG Archive from R.H.S. Stephenson, the then Hon. Sec. of the BCF, "The President [Hamilton-Russell - MS] has just acquired from the City of London Chess Club a picture which has been hanging on the wall of the club for some years" and the two of them arranged for the picture, after cleaning, to be donated to the National Portrait Gallery later that year. Just in time. The CLCC was disappearing into the National Chess Centre at John Lewis's in the course of 1939, but in September 1940 the NCC was destroyed by fire during the Blitz and tragically a good deal of irreplaceable chess history went up in flames with it. A narrow escape for Rosenbaum's chess gents. 
Chess Magazine 1952 page 93 via WLCC
After taking possession of it the NPG had it on display. This was certainly still so in 1943 when Mr.Cordingley saw it there and wrote gently chiding the gallery for not giving the visiting public more information about the painting. He provided them with The Chess-Monthly material, of which they were unaware. The gallery's own exhibition record isn't clear after that, except that there is a record of it going to Leipzig in 1960 for a show "Chess Throughout The Ages".  R.N.Coles found it in the NPG store-room in 1980 (NPG Archive letter); and it went on display at Bodwelyddan in 1988, where you can see it now.   

And that is the story of how the picture got to where it is. The fact that it is with us at all is a tribute to the past generosity of some public-spirited figures in the English chess community.

More next week when we get up close and take a hard look at the painting itself. 

Acknowledgements etc.
Thursby's 75 Problems (1883) is an ebook here, and JOST trivia may be found here, and here. Thanks to Tim Harding for his suggestions. 
G. A. MacDonnell. Chess Life Picture (1883).
The J Arnold Green quote comes from The Living Age (Sixth Series, Volume XVIII, April, May, June, 1898), according to here.
E.R.G. Cordingley is mentioned by Bill Wall, in connection with the LCC disaster, here.   
Thanks again to Paul Timson, and to Richard James for helping with the BCC/CLCC business; also to Mike Conroy of Burnley CC for his help at second remove, and apologies for not offering more detail of his venerable club; to the staff at the NPG Archive; and Olimpiu Urcan for a comment on FGH-R.   

All episodes (forward and back) may be found via the History Index

Jump to problem solutions

Thursby no. 47: 1. Ke1 a2   2. Qa4 any 3. Q#

Thursby no. 51: 1. Bc6 Ke5 2. Qf7 Kd4/d6 3. Q#
                                    Ke7 2. Qf5 Kd6/d8 3. Q#

Thursby no. 53: 1. Kxe3 a2  2. Nd2 Kxa1/a3 3. B/N#

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