British Playing Sets
1750-1900 - a brief overview
These wonderful sets were made not as
decorative objects, but with which to play
games of chess. They are
called playing sets. The most expensive are made from
and cheaper ones from bone, usually cow bone, and wood. Ivory
fine smooth surface, which is translucent and can show cross-hatched
The pieces are generally white and stained red with cochineal.
In the 18th century,
black was more common than red. Bone sets have
speckles and lines from the small
veins and capillaries for blood flow,
and are also usually white and red. The wood sets
are usually black
ebony and shellacked boxwood, often patinated to beautiful
Rosewood and unvarnished boxwood are also found.
St George sets
have their own pages.
The first set is white and black-stained ivory and dates from
to one reported to be owned by Captain Cook in the 1770s,
and is in the National Maritime
Museum, but there is no real evidence
for Captain Cook's ownership.
Captain Cook style set. The knights
were carved in Fleet Street, the chess piece carving centre
Common bone English Playing Set
The bone set is a typical cheap old English set. They are very common,
but often made up from several different sets. A "superior" version
W. Howard was one of the few manufacturers to sign boxes.
This is his
characteristic label, for his "superior" product.
The knights are more finely carved than in the cheaper set above, and
the eyes have a black
pupil, as used in the more expensive ivory sets.
The finer carving is
seen below, with the Howard knights on the left.
Howard also used a
higher quality bone, with fewer speckles and lines.
The sets above have a characteristic construction with the stems
screwed into the thin bases.
Wooden sets made the same way are
extremely rare. The next set is made of boxwood and
rosewood. The bases
are quite fragile and this set must be a rare survivor. The kings are
110 mm high.
Jaques made a wide variety styles
concurrently with their Staunton sets. The Northern Upright
handsome set that predated the Staunton. The following has a 10.6 cm
It is similar to one illustrated in the Jaques Pattern Book, of which a
but is not a Jaques.
Jaques, along with Calvert and Lund, used shallow domed bases. They are
elegant than the later deep domes.