With the advent of international chess tournaments in the Victorian era, it became clear that a standard size and shape for the ancient game's 32 pieces was required. It was Nathaniel Cook's ‘Ornamental Design for a Set of Chess Men’ patented on March 1, 1849 that made the winning move.
The so-called Staunton pattern was named after the English chess master Howard Staunton (1810-1874) who penned a regular column for the Illustrated London News where Cook was editor. Daring in its pared-down simplicity, but relatively cheap to produce, its commercial possibilities were immediately grasped by the leading Hatton Garden purveyor of fine games John Jaques. It was a family affair: Jaques was Cook’s brother-in-law.
According to adverts in the Illustrated London News dated September 8, 1849, the first Jaques Staunton pattern sets were available in “the finest African ivory (5 guineas), boxwood and ebony (£1/15 shillings or club size (£2/5 shillings) and Wedgwood’s Carrara (£2/12/6 shillings)”. The first 500 sets were sold in distinctive gothic revival style carton-pierre boxes with labels hand signed and numbered by Staunton with later versions carrying his signature in facsimile.
All sorts of minutiae are involved in the dating of these early issues - particularly subtle variations in the form and carving to the knights whose ‘horse of Selene’ design was borrowed from the Elgin Marbles.
The red-stained and natural ivory Staunton pattern set offered at Peter Wilson’s sale on Wednesday, September 13 is thought to date from c.1851-52. Crowns are stamped on the top of one of the rooks and knights of each colour while the kings (one stamped Jaques London) stand just under 3in high - just below the standard tournament size. Although the Continental carved wooden box is not the original, this early example of a classic and much-collected design is generating plenty of interest at its estimate of £200-300. Click here to view the lot.