The Chessmen Museum is finishing the year with a bang, putting its new masterpiece in the limelight: an ivory chess set, made in the mid-nineteenth century in Visakhapatnam, India. It´s a real eye-catcher with its white and green painted chess pieces: an important asset to the collection.

The British East India Company was one of the largest and most powerful trading companies in the world in the early 1800s. The company had expanded considerably with its own administration and army. It had started out in the seventeenth century with small trading settlements, and ended up with the colonisation of entire areas through armed fortresses. This applied to India as well. The country was no longer a trading partner at the time, but was largely administered as a state by the British authorities. After the Company lost its administrative role in 1858, India came under the reign of Queen Victoria as part of British India. From 1877 she was even Empress of India.

From village to commercial city

King and Queen of the Visakhapatnam antique chess set

The village of Visakhapatnam on the Indian east coast grew into an important trading place through contact with the Europeans. It was a transit station for merchant ships from Europe on their way to the East. The craftsmen in Visakhapatnam had great ivory and wood carving skills and made the most beautiful pieces of furniture, as well as chess games. The Company’s government officials and merchants who had made their fortune in India were very keen on taking these kinds of luxury showpieces back to England.

Before the arrival of the European traders, Hindu craftsmen had mainly used their carving techniques to make statues of their gods and decorate temples. These exotic decorations were very popular with the British and so the demand for consumer products in the same exotic style arose. The craftsmen from Visakhapatnam began to manufacture popular export products for the European market, with a special focus on the British market. The merchandise included items such as furniture, boxes and chess sets, which they made in their own unique style. They would use 18th century British chess sets as an example for their own designs, and then carve the pieces from ivory, and with more elaborate details than the British chess pieces.

Pepys games

Antique Pepys chess set from Visakhapatnam (credits Antique Chess Shop)

Antique ivory chess sets from Visakhapatnam are best known for their beautiful green chess pieces. The pieces on one side of the board are made of unpainted white ivory, obtained from the Indian elephant, and the pieces on the opposite side are dyed green after they have been crafted. The pieces on both sides are identical in terms of design. The most famous version of the green and white chess sets from Visakhapatnam is the Pepys game. It is a purely decorative chess set, because it is huge: the king is an impressive 17 centimetres high. The elegant king and queen have got openwork spheres under their crowns and the bishops´ mites are serrated. This chess game owes its name to the Pepys Cockerell family. It was an heirloom of their ancestor Samuel Pepys, and the family donated the game to the former London Museum.

According to the family, Samuel Pepys had received the set from the English king James II (1685-1688). Although the chessboard seems to stem from that era, experts are not unanimously convinced that the chess pieces were made in the same period. More likely, the chess pieces ended up in the family at another point in time. More games in the decorative Pepys style have been preserved and cannot be dated earlier than the early nineteenth century.

Playing chess

The pompous Pepys-style chess sets are very rare, but simpler versions have also been preserved. The craftsmen of Visakhapatnam created those as well, because the demand for more manageable chess games to play with outweighed the demand for decorative showpieces. The antique chess pieces of the manageable kind are usually made of green and white ivory too, but they are not as big.

White side of the Visakhapatnam antique chess set, around 1840 -1860.

The same is true for the Chessmen Museum´s latest acquisition. It was created around the mid-1800s, in one of the workshops in Visakhapatnam that focused on the carving and painting of ivory chess sets for the British East India Company. After a centuries-long journey, this precious antique chess set has reached the port of Rotterdam, where it is more than worthy of its place in the Chessmen Museum.

By Marjolein Overmeer