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End Game

Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2012

«Chess games are sometimes accurately represented in works of art, but that is not always the case. Consider, for example, this curiously theatrical photograph from the mid-nineteenth century.»

Chess Players

[Chess Players], 1850s. Unknown artist, British. Ambrotype. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mariana Cook and Hans P. Kraus, Jr., 1995 (1995.34)

I asked chess expert Jon Crumiller to tell me what he thought about the image and about the game in progress. The props are authentic. The board, he notes, is a relatively common Victorian type, hidden inside what appears at first to be a book. Surviving examples often even have a phony title, proclaiming it to be a "History of England" or another country. The set in this photograph conforms to the "St. George" pattern, which was one of the most common types in England, beginning in the early nineteenth century.

At first it appears to us that the board is set up incorrectly. After all, the white square should be each player's lower right-hand corner, and the King and Queen are reversed on their respective squares. But Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge of the Metropolitan's Department of Photographs, tells us that this is due to the lateral reversal typical of ambrotypes.

But the game is still staged. Mr. Crumiller notes:

I doubt that the players know much, if anything, about how to play chess. The four Knights are on squares a3, a6, h3, and h6, which players of even weak strength wouldn't play. White has just moved Qa5, and Black's King is now in check.

Unlike this rather amusingly contrived photograph, the installation of The Game of Kings at The Cloisters accurately reflects a famous chess game. Few pieces remain on the board—just each King and what's left of their depleted armies. Looking at the board in the galleries, I sense, or imagine, the dramatic tension between the Kings, eyeing each other.

Installation at The Cloisters

View of the installation in the Romanesque Hall. Photograph by Karin Willis

Some visitors to the exhibition have recognized the set-up immediately. It is the final position of the last game of the so-called Match of the Century, the 1972 World Chess Championship between American Bobby Fischer and defending Soviet champion Boris Spassky. Much like the 1980 Ice Hockey game between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Lake Placid Olympics, the chess match was seen as a metaphor for the Cold War between the competitors' countries. The accompanying drama reached epic proportions, unmatched since chess literature of the Middle Ages! You can find the game, and even follow it move by move, on a number of websites.

Better yet, come see it in the installation of the Lewis Chessmen. The final day of the exhibition is Sunday, April 22.

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About the Author

Barbara Drake Boehm is the Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, on view at The Cloisters November 15, 2011–April 22, 2012.