'Turner's licence', 'Made-Up' Sets or 'Sheer Indifference'?
Aug 6, 2011Public
Photo: The above article was published in the July 2011 edition of The Chess Collector, and was intended as a light-hearted look at made-up sets from a specific angle.

The same issue contained articles by Milissa Ellison and Alan Dewey. The former looked at the use of new technology and standardization/repetition in the C19th and the latter a practical look at how Barleycorn Chess sets were made. As I read it, Alan's initial thought that they were made on more complex ornamental lathes involving regular repetition of pattern/decoration was not borne out in practice, the inevitable conclusion being that much decoration etc was still applied 'by eye' leading to some error and fudging.

I have long thought this might have been the case, as we are talking of commercial firms producing for profit and employing the cheapest/quickest techniques. It did however lead me to wonder how much variation in pieces can be accepted as within this concept and the extent to which it affects our ideas of 'made-up' sets.
Photo: CH330 From an Indian 'Anglo-Indian' ivory set: https://picasaweb.google.com/102034963874507604520/NonEuropean#5637681765798656210

From top left-to-right:

i) Kings of different size: mostly due to size of the base
ii) Queens of different size - again mostly due to the base;  top balls different in shape; white Q has a very small trace of red stain - it may have been a entirely red piece that has had the stain removed.
iii) Queen's taken from above - note that the white has circular decoration applied to the crown of the ball.
iv) Bishops - different size; there is a difference to the rings on the collars; plus the white bishop again shows a small trace of red stain.
v) Rooks - the red rook is perceptibly larger and has a slightly different slope to the crenellations
vi) Pawns - slight differences in shape/size between most of the pawns; the collar rings are mainly as on the white pawn shown, but three are like the red pawn.

Taken together, there seem just too many differences for this to be an original set.
Photo: The first two rows of images are of the Rooks to my 'problem' set - CH330. In the frontal views, there are considerable variations in the profiles. The bases, too, exhibit differences: two seem to have identical rings, one has much smaller rings and one has none. As with the Kings, these rings are ivory plugs to seal the hollow central sections in the larger pieces of material. Not surprsingly, the relative weight of the piece follows this: the solid piece (no rings) is heaviest; next is that with the smaller rings and finally, the two with the largest rings. 

The final image is of the bases of two rooks from Victor's set - which otherwise looks as 'though it is an original set. The rings are quite different in size, and, again, weight follows this. 

If a standard look was considered a desirable norm, I would have thought it quite possible to achieve on all of these pieces by having a standard size circular plug and then chasing this in as needed. Simple rings could have been inscribed in solid pieces.
Photo: Bases from an Indian ivory set showing the decoration applied to denote the 'black side' -  Bishops (the larger) & Rooks (the smaller)

The full set may be seen in the equence starting here: https://picasaweb.google.com/102034963874507604520/NonEuropean#5402827383759472050

Three of the four bases show slight gaps (at 12 o'clock - with the top rook base having two gaps: the other at 7 o'clock) where the elements do not quite meet. The bishops both have 23 elements - the rooks 24, despite being the smaller bases. [assuming I haven't miscounted - it is quite tricky!]

Clearly, the decoration was applied 'by eye' with little determined attempt at absolute consistency.

However, unlike the preceding set, the pattern on the underside of all pieces is very consistent.

The threads on this set are interchangeable (between pieces of the same type: eg bishop/bishop) in some instances, but by no means all - in the above, the rooks do, the bishops do not. No rook exchanges with a bishop.
Photo: CH61 From a good quality English bone Barleycorn set


Although seemingly original to the set, note that the lower elements have no decoration to the red piece. Simple forgetfulness?
Photo: CH301 A small English bone playing set

The main images of the set can be seen here: https://picasaweb.google.com/mtaxcons/EnglishNonStauntonPlayingSets#5585866731677643538

The top section of the Q's look quite different.
The pawns are of varying sizes, thicknesses of stem, and the bases are of different diameters. The pawn on the left has an ivory stem - and features in the large-right hand image.

The stain and general 'impression' of this set are that they may well be original, despite the differences noted. The use of an ivory stem - if original - may also bring into doubt the idea that ivory and bone turning were not undertaken in the same place (this, due to the very unpleasant smell of bone being worked*).

* I tend to discount this, as workers get used to almost anything through exposure, and become blase about it. This is brought home in a report in the Strand magazine from 1895 of a visit to the Royal Gunpowder Factory and especially the sulphur refinery. The quote is given below.
Photo: So, does any of this prove anything or not? The answer is 'No', but it does raise questions as to how homogeneous we can expect pieces within any given set to be.

As Alan Dewey's experiments have shown, even pieces from reasonably high-end sets were often made using simple equipment and decoration applied 'by eye' which can - and did - lead to variances. It would seem reasonable to expand this to conclude that even wider variations can be expected from lower-end sets made by 'lesser' turning shops.

But - how far can this idea be taken? That, I don't know, and everyone needs to make up their own mind as to what they are prepared to accept; but it does perhaps show that we should not automatically dismiss sets with variances.

BUT - beware: undoubtedly some, if not many, of these sets will have been tricked-up (whether or not with any intention to deceive).

A final thought: were chess sets ever sold off cheaply as 'seconds', 'mis-shapes' or 'apprentice/journeyman sets' as occurs in some craft areas ?