The enduring enigma of the ‘lost’ Lewis chessmen
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Of all the “lost” objects to rediscover, few could rival a Lewis chessman. These diminutive carvings of kings, queens, bishops, knights and rooks in the guise of armed “warders” are no mere gaming pieces — they lay claim to being the most resonant, and beloved, survivors of the secular medieval world.
And now, almost two centuries after the buried hoard was first discovered on the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis, another of these 13th-century morse (walrus ivory) figures, a solitary warder, has resurfaced on to the market. Its debut at Sotheby’s on July 2 is sensational, but perhaps not unexpected.
The reason is that the details of the discovery of this extraordinary hoard — the exact location and size of the find and its initial dispersal — remain shrouded in mystery, and very possibly deliberately obfuscated. (Professor Neil Stratford’s engaging The Lewis Chessmen and the Enigma of the Hoard recounts all the tall tales.)
What is known for sure is that 92 morse carvings, 59 of them chessmen, were shown to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh in April 1831. At some point they were sold for £30 to an Edinburgh art dealer who discreetly sold 10 of them on before suggesting that the British Museum maintain the integrity of the hoard by acquiring the rest of the group, which it did.
The antiquary who acquired the 10 pieces was able to source another chessman on Lewis (these 11 now belong to the National Museum of Scotland). It is unclear how many pieces, if any, remained on the island or were sold in Edinburgh. When these chessmen were carved — and they are likely to have been produced in great numbers — the Western Isles belonged to the kingdom of Norway, and the consensus of scholarly opinion now suggests that Lewis chessmen were made in Trondheim. Given their general lack of wear, it also seems likely that they were part of the stock of a merchant.
If we are to presume that the medieval game was played with the same number of pieces as modern chess, the hoard as recorded had enough figure pieces for four complete chess sets, save for five missing pieces, one knight and four warders.
This warder was bought in Edinburgh in 1964 for £5, sold by one local antiques dealer to another, and his ledger reveals that it was never recognised as anything other than an antique chess piece. It has passed down through his family. Meticulous research has revealed it to be entirely consistent with other pieces in the Lewis hoard although, unlike them, it has never been cleaned.
Eight of the British Museum’s figure pieces and several of the pawns were recorded on their arrival as stained red, to distinguish them from the white pieces, and further details may have been applied with pigments. Others have tiny vestiges of green, like this one, which may link them to the green and white sets apparently preferred by the Icelanders.
The surfaces of all the Lewis pieces are, to a greater or lesser extent, marked by a web of channels now thought to derive from the fungal action of plant roots. This poor warder, like the great Norse god Odin, is missing an eye. Yet even that fails to diminish his presence.
The Lewis chessmen do not constitute sets in the way we understand them. Each piece is determined by the size, shape and hue of the available tusk or tooth, and by the skills or inclinations of their individual carvers. No two are the same. Warders are standing footsoldiers “warding” the margins of the board in what is, after all, a war game. Those biting the tops of their shields probably represent the legendary frenzied Norse warriors known as berserkers; the majority, like this one, stand solemn, helmeted, mustachioed and bearded, sword in one hand, shield in the other.
It is impossible to look at him — or any individual Lewis chessman — without beginning to speculate as to his character, and it is tempting to believe that this is at the heart of the chessmen’s enduring appeal.
These figures were created at a time when the abstract forms of the chess pieces introduced into the west from the Islamic and Byzantine worlds were anthropomorphised to reflect the courtly and military hierarchies of medieval society. As the 13th-century Franciscan John of Wales wrote: “The whole world is like a chessboard, of which one square is white and another black, following the dual state of life and death, praise and blame. The society (familia) of this chessboard are men of this world, who are all taken from a common bag, and placed in different parts of this world . . . ” It seems that we cannot resist empathising with these distant versions of ourselves.
For Oliver Postgate, one of the creators of the classic British animation, The Saga of Noggin the Nog, the Lewis figures were far from fierce and warlike: “It was clear that these were essentially kindly, non-belligerent characters, who were thoroughly dismayed by the prospect of contest.” Yet their very mystery and ambiguity lends itself to endless re-imaginings, as the moment when a queen comes to life to destroy a vanquished knight in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone bears witness. They even turn up in Japanese Manga.
In 2016, an exceptional elephant ivory chess piece, probably carved in Cologne around 1300-20 and possibly a portrait of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, was estimated by Sotheby’s at £120,000-£180,000 and fetched a record £653,000. This far from humble warder bears an estimate of £600,000-£1m.
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