26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 66



Raymond Keene

THE ROYAL ACADEMY in Piccadilly started its career as the London residence of Lord Burlington, aesthete, Maecenas, collector, architect, connoisseur, political grandee and putative Grand Freemason of the Higher Arch. Still to be seen on the ceiling of the foyer are four 18th-century tondos by Angelica Kaufmann, the leading female artist of her day. They depict Angelica herself as the embodiments of Genius, Painting, Design and Composition, and interestingly she shows herself playing chess to illustrate the last of these themes.

Barry Martin, official artist to the 1993 Short–Kasparov world championship and former vice-president of the Chelsea Arts Club, has researched the connection between Lord Burlington, Chiswick House (Lord B's country residence), chess sets and freemasonry. Lord Burlington, the Man and his Politics (The Edwin Mellen Press, £49.95), to be launched at the RA on 28 September, contains a chapter by Martin on Lord Burlington's masonic preoccupations. This week I investigate Martin's remark- able research on the hidden links between chess set design and masonic principles.

The Staunton pattern chess pieces were introduced in the late 1840s, and most of the chessmen in the array are recognisable as representations of something in the real world — that is, apart from the pawns. Interestingly, the balustrade of Chiswick House is topped with objects of statuary that, to a chess player, are obviously giant Staunton pattern stone pawns, 100 years before their time!

It is in 1838 in Bell's Life, a popular Sunday paper, that the first recorded chess use of the term 'grandmaster' is found. It was with reference to William Lewis, described as 'our past Grandmaster'. The term is used more commonly towards the end of the 19th century in referring to chess players, but its origins are, in fact, much older and from an entirely different source, that of freemasonry.

Howard Staunton's most enduring repu- tation stems from the chessmen to which he gave his name. The design was success- ful then, and continues to be so. It sets the international standard for use in official competitions. Yet, despite this success, Staunton died in near poverty, and mystery surrounds the source of the design.

Whatever the truth, the set has a pro- found look and beauty. The design is richly wrought, steeped in symbolism and ancient history, and, interestingly, there are strong connections with freemasonry. Staunton must have been aware of these associa- tions. Since dukes, prince regents and kings were freemasons, as was George Washing- ton (who was buried with full masonic hon- ours) and many more, it is not difficult to note its lore and symbolism incorporated into everyday activities including chess and architecture.

As Martin points out, the distinctive Staunton pawn, as seen on the balustrade at Chiswick House, has the same propor- tions as the freemasons believed the pillars at King Solomon's Temple to have had. It represented strength and establishment (both of importance to freemasons) and has also been connected with the compass- es and square. In the Craft the square sym- bolises morality and righteousness and compasses symbolise spirituality.

There are also masonic connections with the knight. The Staunton knight piece is generally thought to have originated from the appearance of the horses' heads depict- ed in the Elgin marbles, which are from part of the east pediment of the Acropolis in Greece portraying the birth of Athena. To the left of Athena herself is the chariot of Helios, the sun god, with his mystical connection with the Egyptian Osiris, the god of resurrection and rebirth. Given the possible connection between the pawn and masonic symbolism, perhaps the designer of the Staunton chessmen also wanted the knight to represent the powerful ideas associated with the horses of the Elgin marbles, and not just their outward appear- ance. It strongly suggests that the Staunton pieces in general carry symbolic impor- tance in accordance with masonic thinking.

That Howard Staunton was a freemason has yet to be proved, but this, in itself, would have been quite usual for the day. Indeed, many coffee houses and divans that were centres for chess also doubled as meetings for freemasons' lodges.

Just space for a neat finish by the man first named as a chess grandmaster in print.

Lewis–Scrimgour: 1818.

White forced mate by means of 1 QcS+ Rxc8 2 Nd7.