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The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis

British Museum curator James Robinson joins Met curator Barbara Drake Boehm for a conversation about the mysterious origins, playful details, and superb craftsmanship of the Lewis Chessmen on the occasion of The Cloisters exhibition The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis.

The Game of Kings is on view at The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's branch in northern Manhattan for medieval art, from November 15, 2011, through April 22, 2012.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Hello, I'm Barbara Drake Boehm, curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I'm also curator of the exhibition The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis.

James Robinson: And I'm James Robinson, curator of Late Medieval Collections, Department of Prehistory and Europe, at the British Museum in London.

Barbara Drake Boehm: We're so fortunate to have this extraordinary collection of walrus ivory carvings from the twelfth century here in New York for the time being, some thirty-five pieces that are from this largest treasure of chess pieces of the Middle Ages that exists.

James Robinson: That's right, yeah, and they're all beautifully installed now in the Romanesque Hall of The Cloisters museum, and really they've never looked finer. They're in this amazing setting, which evokes exactly the sort of environment you might imagine them to have been played within.

The chess sets that the Lewis Hoard comprises would have been owned by someone either royal or extremely highly placed within the aristocracy. They're luxury products, extremely expensive, and that's reflected, I think, in the artistry that characterizes each of the pieces.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Absolutely. The fact that every piece, regardless of its position—whether it's a bishop or a knight—every one is different from every other one. Each has its own hair, its own throne, its own details of costume, and so on.

James Robinson: Mm-hmm. Because they are little miniature people. I mean, that's why we love them, quite frankly. You know, it's that they have personalities. They're not portraits of anyone. You'd never say that they had highly individualized facial features. But they do have character. I think that's what really makes people go to them again and again.

Barbara Drake Boehm: I particularly love the king who has this kind of Rastafarian hairdo going down the back, down to the back of his throne. And one thing that we curators are privileged to realize is just how extraordinary these pieces feel in your hand. The ivory is so soft and lustrous, and yet they have a wonderful weight to them, so you feel very powerful if you pick up and move that king and put him in place.

James Robinson: And their design really is so well considered that it's almost impossible to knock one over. They've got a very low center of gravity, they're very dense, and when you look at all the different features of their design, there are no protuberant parts. Each king holds a sword across his lap. The croziers that the bishops hold are not jutting out. Everything is really carefully contained within this frame. And of course, they are in a state of absolutely astounding preservation. To think that these were found in a sand dune, on a beach, where they'd been buried for several hundred years—

Barbara Drake Boehm: Right, in the 1800s!

James Robinson: Yeah, it's amazing.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Well, the Isle of Lewis is such an extraordinary place in itself and this bay where they are said to have been found is a wonderfully protected spot, and yet, a very dramatic landscape. You can really imagine, as you see this tide going in and out, and how much sand it carries with it each time that it goes, that something like this could be uncovered after several hundred years. Of course, we don't know the circumstances of how they came to be hidden or buried there, but only that someone was lucky enough to uncover them. And then that the British Museum had the chance within about a year's time, less than a year's time, to purchase them.

James Robinson: Yeah, and of course, the sea routes were the motorways of the Middle Ages. They were the most efficient way of getting anywhere. So that probably accounts for why they may have been deposited on the Isle of Lewis. They were perhaps lost in transit, perhaps taken from Norway to Ireland or in transit somewhere along that northern seaboard. Now, I feel they could have been the stock-in-trade of a merchant, because they were found with a belt buckle and with tabulae, the counters use in a game like backgammon.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Right.

James Robinson: There are enough pieces to make up perhaps four sets all together—

Barbara Drake Boehm: At least four sets, right?

James Robinson: It's all shrouded in mystery, but essentially what happens is that in 1831 the British Museum acquires eighty-two pieces from the hoard.

Barbara Drake Boehm: At the time the curator thought that was the whole thing.

James Robinson: That's right. And then later it materializes that another ten pieces were sold to a private collector, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharp. He then acquires another one. I mean, it's still my fantasy that several more might still turn up. They could still be out there.

Barbara Drake Boehm: You were talking about how self-contained they are and how that has surely contributed to their fine state of preservation. And yet, at the same time, while the swords aren't sticking out, the artist or artists—we assume there's more than one—have gone to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate their skill and to really use their creative imaginations, even when the bishop is holding a crozier. The crozier could have been tucked right up against his shoulder, and then it would only have had to be shown in relief. But in fact what they do is they actually carve away so that there's daylight between the chest of the bishop and the crozier he holds. Same thing with the knights and their swords. Amazing little sculptures.

James Robinson: One of the things that makes them such compelling objects is that the artist clearly enjoyed making them. There's a great delight in detail.

Barbara Drake Boehm: And as players, of course, you look at the back of your pieces. The backs are wonderfully decorated, the thrones of the bishops and the queens and the kings, the fanons—those things that hang down from the bishop's mitre.

James Robinson: That's right. That's one of the rooks. There's a rook with a very distinctive helmet that's rather like a lampshade, actually, and he has a very creative hairstyle. Yeah, the hair has a sort of kink up at the end, you know? It's much simpler to keep the hair straight. But they're playful, you know. The artists have clearly had a great deal of pleasure in crafting these details.

Barbara Drake Boehm: The two queens that we have—to my mind, one of them is much more interesting and the other is much more beautiful. The beautiful one is very elongated and elegant, and the more interesting one is kind of sober, more sober looking. But she holds that horn in her hand, and there's been a lot of discussion about why is she holding a horn. There are a couple of possibilities, of course. You can sound a horn if you're going into battle. You can sound a horn if you need help in the middle of a battle. You can drink from a horn.

James Robinson: But I think one of the ideas is that the queen is holding it for her king. You know, the queens are one of the interesting features of the board, because they represent its westernization, the westernization of the game. And of course chess is an ancient Indian game that then comes through to Europe through Persia, then the Islamic territories of north Africa and south Europe. And the other, Christian, western aspect of the board is the bishop.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Who replaces the elephant.

James Robinson: Who replaces the elephant, yeah.

Barbara Drake Boehm: That's a funny transition. Do you believe this idea that they came up with the idea of the bishop, because the elephant in the stylized Islamic pieces had those kind of two ear-like protuberances from the top, which looks a little bit like the bishop's hat?

James Robinson: I think perhaps it was influenced partly from a design point of view by that representation. But I would tend to think that the bishop is on the board really reflecting his power as part of the feudal structure of society in the Middle Ages. He's a feudal lord in his own right.

Barbara Drake Boehm: That's right. And sometimes he's a great ally of the king.

James Robinson: Absolutely. Sometimes a brother.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Sometimes not. The berserker, who's barely able to restrain himself—he's so worked up into a lather at the prospect of fighting.

James Robinson: The berserker is the piece that's biting the top of his shield. And this is a mythological Norse warrior who drives himself into a self-induced state of frenzy before battle and—

Barbara Drake Boehm: Maybe not self-induced, right? Maybe they took magic mushrooms or something?

James Robinson: Maybe he should have a drinking horn as well. I'm sure that there's a great deal of ritual around the state of frenzy that he arrives at, yeah.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Well, I mentioned the one warder who's not looking straight ahead. He's looking off to the side. And James very cleverly suggested, as we were installing it, "Let's put him just to the side of the berserker so it almost seems as if he's nervous about that other guy there."

James Robinson: And they do speak to each other. One of the figures that I like the placing of in the exhibition is the bishop that remains on the chess board in the central game. Because there he's got a much stronger identity than he's ever had before. And it's as if he's kind of sallying forth. That's an example of something that acquires a presence because of where it's positioned.

Barbara Drake Boehm: And I noticed that on the central board—and I wasn't expecting it—the two kings are in proximity to each other and so it feels that there's a kind of energy between them. It's kind of competitive.

James Robinson: And they're beautifully contrasted. Because one has this great big heavy beard, looks like Father Christmas, and the other one is clean shaven, with a slight overbite, so he looks a bit goofy, you know.

Barbara Drake Boehm: I wanted to have the central case reflect a final position and why not make it a famous game so that people who are chess enthusiasts could look at it and think about it and probably guess in thirty seconds, some of them, exactly what game it is? But frankly, I was looking for a final position that didn't leave too many pieces on the board, because I was very eager to show those kings really pretty much on their own, with only a small complement of their surviving army around them. And I think that became a very strong and powerful presentation of those pieces. And then, by type, the fallen pieces in the smaller cases surrounding them.

James Robinson: The queen with a drinking horn is a fun piece, of course. And her qualities were exploited in the first Harry Potter film. When Ron and Harry play "sorcerer's chess," at some point the queen confronts a piece—a knight, I think—by stepping out of her throne and beating it about the head with the throne in this animated sequence. So that's something else about the war-like quality of these queens, I guess.

Barbara Drake Boehm: One thing we did in the exhibition was to exhibit in a case a pair of walrus tusks from the American Museum of Natural History here in New York that were collected at the beginning of the twentieth century. Walrus ivory is very precious. It's like cutting a dress out of an expensive piece of fabric. You'd want to get as many pieces as you could out of a single tusk. So you'd have to probably make slices and then the even trickier part is working with the outer dentine and then the inner dentine, which if you do reach it, you want it to be in the tucked-away corners—right, James?—of the sculpture so it's not so pearly and luminous as the outer layer.

James Robinson: Because it's almost impossible to avoid it entirely. But that's another great tribute to the skill of the craftsmen, that they're constantly navigating this difficulty. And the're using things like saws and chisels and knives to do it. And drills, of course. I mean, what we've discovered is that they're also using drills on these pieces, so that some of the knights, for instance, where they have these beautifully, sort of, expressed jawbones of the horses, they'd create a beautiful shape just by drilling through and using the shape that's created by the drill to get the jawbone for this very kind of sinuous curve. Very beautiful.

Barbara Drake Boehm: And then the drill to give them the horses' little flaring nostrils.

James Robinson: Yeah. I think we should mention the horses because the horses really have cute factor written all over them. Because they're there with these incredibly long fringes that obscure their eyes.

Barbara Drake Boehm: What we call "bangs," you call "fringes"—that's one of those English-American problems—that come down below their eyes.

James Robinson: You call that a bank?

Barbara Drake Boehm: We call that bangs.

James Robinson: Oh, bangs. Well, they have very long bangs.

Barbara Drake Boehm: And tails that reach the ground.

James Robinson: Yeah, interesting, I think, for us to consider, that chess would have been played with music in the background, as part of the ritual of leisure and pleasure that characterized these wealthy households.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Do you think that might have helped keep it from coming to fisticuffs, as it sometimes did in a game of chess?

James Robinson: Probably depends what sort of music they're playing.

Barbara Drake Boehm: And sometimes they were betting on the games, right? Which the Church didn't like, that part of it.

James Robinson: Yes. That's right. And in fact, the Church forbids chess for the clergy for a long time, and it's only really in the thirteenth century that that argument loses currency, partly because they're fighting a losing battle, and knowledge of chess is really circulated in monastic contexts, and that's why some of the earliest documents relating the rules of the games of chess survive. And then in the fullness of time, chess becomes one of the kind of metaphors for sermons—it's used an awful lot in the thirteenth century.

Barbara Drake Boehm: Well, and, of course, there's really no point in forbidding something unless somebody's already doing it, so we can be pretty sure they were playing, even when it was frowned upon.

James Robinson: I have to say, the bug hasn't bitten me. I haven't played chess since I was about fourteen, and I really haven't embarked on a new career of chess playing. But I have observed that there's a great deal more popularity for chess among children. And part of that, although it can't be put down exclusively to Harry Potter—it did inspire some children to play, so I can sort of see why there might be more modern currency for it, but it's coming through lots of different routes, not just one specific route, I think.

Barbara Drake Boehm: And of course, in New York City, we have the marvelous Chess-in-the-Schools program. No, I don't play. It's way too rough a game for me!

The Game of Kings is on view at The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's branch in northern Manhattan for medieval art, from November 15, 2011, through April 22, 2012.

The exhibition is made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund.

The exhibition is made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund.

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