Adding to a chequered history
Artist Graham Knuttel is designing the highly collectible chess sets of tomorrow
THERE’S nothing unusual about artist Graham Knuttel manufacturing a chess set and table in collaboration with Queen Elizabeth’s nephew, London furniture designer Viscount David Linley. Knuttel always had sculpture in his repertoire and networking in his bones. For years he has moulded his pieces of sculpture at the Dublin foundry near Pearse Street. “Go down and look at that foundry, ” he says.
“It is an amazing place. I do all my casting there.”
When it comes to making special tables for chess sets, Knuttel also has the expertise.
“Woodwork was my first love.
I taught it at Dun Laoghire art college.” He contributed to the table design with Linley. “I wanted an impressive table, ” he says. “You have to buy the chess set and table together.”
His liaison with Linley isn’t unusual, either. During his stint in London, he lived across the road from Linley’s King’s Road workshop and he saw the pieces of wood going in and out. “I could see that he was a good craftsman and much later back in Dublin, when I was wondering what to do with my chess set, I thought of him and got in touch.”
The partnership with Linley is a lucrative one for Knuttel.
At the moment he has in mind a small number of console tables which he will sell at his exhibitions and which Linley will sell in his Pimlico shop.
“My people will tell your people and your people will tell mine, ” he says jokingly by way of explaining that they both have a formidable set of contacts who will talk about their work. The pieces were unveiled three months ago at designer Louise Kennedy’s Merrion Square premises, and were showcased at an exhibition of Knuttel’s work in his own gallery. Last week they went to Galway where Russian chess players put Knuttel’s chess set through its first moves in a charity competition to raise money for the tsunami disaster . . . the pieces were so tall and heavy the Russians had to stand up to play.
And the pieces may travel even further. Linley is an international furniture designer with contacts far and wide. For instance, his design company has added its distinctive style to the interiors of the house Les Jolies Eaux on the Caribbean island of Mustique, once a retreat for his mother, Princess Margaret . . . it contains furniture by Linley’s great uncle, the late stage designer Oliver Messel. The six-bed palazzo, set on four acres above the sea, now belongs to Linley and can be rented by non-royals for somewhere around 8,000 to 10,000 per week depending on the season. A set of Knuttel’s chess pieces may even be standing by to entertain the guests.
The chess idea has been in gestation for some time. “I started making them six years ago, and then stopped and put the pieces in my basement for a year or two before I resurrected them again. It took me a lifetime to think up the idea, and two years to make the 12 sets.” And it appears they were worth the wait. Retailing at 70,000 each, “they are good value for the price”, he says.
“You’d pay that for a good car.
And they’ll never fall to bits like a car or lose their value.”
In a limited edition of 12, the large carved pieces are cast in 52 kilos of solid silver. All the pieces are hallmarked . . . the tallest pieces are 16 inches tall and the smaller ones eight inches.
Knuttel’s chess pieces are not based on any design from ancient chess games. “They are formal and pageantry in style and loosely based on the figures in my animal paintings, and a bit like the characters in my work, ” he says.
Knuttel is famous for his dramatic, sharp-edged, jigsawlike shapes.
There are now just two of his sets left for sale and he says “there will be no bother in getting rid of them”. He has moved on to his next project.
“I work from 7 am to 6pm. It keeps me out of trouble.”
Knuttel is currently preparing for his next exhibitions . . . on 18 June in Cork Street, London, and in Los Angeles next October.
Ancient chess Graham Knuttel’s chess sets will be the antiques of the future, but what about ancient chess sets, and where was the game invented?
Purists agree that its origins lie in China, India, Persia and Uzbekistan.
Whichever way it evolved between countries, it is clear that ancient chess, particularly Chinese chess, was a totally different game to western chess. The pieces in Chinese chess were mostly written in Chinese characters and placed on ‘points’ rather than on squares. The original chess boards in India and Persia didn’t have white and black coloured squares but used flat tiles with characters rather than carved figures.
The first evidence of physical pieces doesn’t appear until the game reached Christian Europe.
The claim for Uzbekistan as a source for chess is based on the finding of what appears to be pieces from an old chess set featuring the figure of an elephant, which was dug up in 1972. It has been dated to the second century AD.
The modern form of chess was codified in Italy during the 15th century, and it spread like wildfire across Europe.
Chess in Europe prior to 1475 was substantially the same as that played by the Persians, Indians and Arabs in the seventh century. The most popular form of the game remained the same for about 800 years, during which time there were constant experiments with different types of pieces, such as griffins, unicorns and other strange animals.
The game continues to be most popular in China, with hundreds of millions of active players. You only have to go to any city or village in China and to see men and women playing it in trains, buses, hotels, offices and parks. If you want to play a game of chess in China, all you have to do is to put down a board and pieces on the footpath and an opponent will materialise instantly.
It’s not surprising that with such a chequered history, chess eventually had to be standardised. In the early 19th century, complaints about the unsuitability of different designs led John Jacques, a noted London ivory turner, to search for a standard design at a reasonable cost.
Most of the sets of the period, such as the Lund, Merrifield, Calvert, and Saint George patterns, were intricate and expensive to produce.
Jacques removed the decorative features most liable to damage and widened the bases . . . he corrected most of the design deficiencies found in contemporary designs.
And so on 1 March 1849, in collaboration with Nathaniel Cook of 198 Strand Road, London, an ornamental design for a set of chessmen, under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842, was registered. The set was named after the self-proclaimed world champion, Howard Staunton, an English Shakespearian scholar. The right to manufacture the sets was acquired by John Jacques’s London company. The Staunton pattern chess set, with its clean, simple design, quickly became the world standard for serious and casual play.
These Staunton sets are now highly collectible, although there’s nothing wrong with looking out for a 1920s carved ivory Chinese export chess set or anything from the multitude of Asian sources. They might not be standardised for today’s play, but they could be beautiful, unusual and rare.