V&A Online Journal
Issue No. 7 Summer 2015
Printed Sources for a South German Games Board
Curator, Department of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion
A late 16th-century, south German games board, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is veneered with ebony and engraved bone. By identifying the print sources for most of the engraved ornament, and analysing their selection and use, a clearer picture is offered of the board’s design, manufacture and uses.
In 1899 the South Kensington Museum, London (later the Victoria and Albert Museum) purchased a games board veneered with ebony and lavishly engraved bone (figs 1-3); no playing pieces (or key) were included with the board.(1) In his introduction to the catalogue of the Forman sale, from which the board was sold shortly before it was purchased by the Museum, Cecil H. Smith notes that William Henry Forman built up his collection of objets de vertu and antiquities ‘in the middle years of the [19th] century, mainly from purchases at London sales’.(2) The board was already known to the Museum, having been exhibited there, as part of the South Kensington Museum Special Loan Collection, 1862.(3) Indeed its inclusion in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue may have helped foster a market interest in such boards; similar examples were later owned or published by such eminent collectors of the day as Frédéric Spitzer, Baron Mayer de Rothschild and Henry, 15th Duke of Norfolk.(4)
The form of a pair of boards hinged together is found in Europe from at least the 14th century and possibly much earlier; by the early 16th century, boards of similar proportions that close to form a shallow box were being made with intarsia decoration, probably in southern Spain and/or Venice.(5) Hinged games boards with engraved decoration on veneers of ivory or bone were a new variation, probably from about 1580, and one of the luxury products supplied by cabinet-makers in southern Germany, where the cities of Augsburg and Nuremberg were pre-eminent centres of design and luxury goods.(6)
Open, the two hinged boards provide a playing surface for backgammon, with the raised edges preventing the counters from sliding off the boards; closed, they provide a board for chess or draughts and, inverted, another for merels (Nine Men’s Morris), a game of ancient origin in which players seek to form lines of three pieces so as to reduce his opponent’s pieces.(7) The boards form a shallow box fitted with a sprung lock, which could be put to practical use to store the games pieces.(8) The board’s primary visual impact relies on the contrast of white bone with black ebony, and the multiplicity of engraved detail in more than 400 distinct figures or motifs, distributed over almost every surface. The engraved decoration of the board teems with eclectic variety, including ancient exemplars, hunts and battle scenes, dancing couples, birds and animals, sea-monsters, grotesque and Moresque ornament.
The prestige accorded such veneered and engraved games boards, sometimes further enhanced with silver and mother-of-pearl, is demonstrated by their inclusion in the princely art cabinets (Kunstschränke) and the less extravagant but smaller writing tables (Screibtische) commissioned by Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647), an Augsburg merchant, banker, diplomat and art collector.(9) The design similarities between boards of this type suggest that it was becoming an established and successful type by 1600.(10) Given the extraordinarily high number of cabinet-makers in Augsburg – in 1590 there were 200 masters with their own workshops – it seems likely that considerable numbers of engraved games boards were being made during the period 1580-1620.(11)
Commentaries on this type of engraved games board have approached them in various ways: seeking to establish groups of similar boards and locating their production in southern Germany, emphasising their suitability to a cabinet of curiosities, or exploring their iconographic values in the context of aristocratic games-playing.(12) Given the prominence and clarity of the engraved decoration, it is not surprising that its derivation from printed sources has been noted, but the unusually thorough analysis of the printed designs presented here offers a much more nuanced reading of such boards’ design, manufacture and appreciation in use.(13) This article seeks to analyse the decorative scheme of the V&A board by relating the engraved motifs to their printed sources, and to explore some of the board’s various cultural and intellectual contexts. It proposes that the cabinet-makers who produced such boards employed a skilful economy of batch production to create individualised luxury products, and suggests that the variety of engraved scenes inventively matches the games-playing that the board served.
Uses and meanings of the games board
Backgammon, chess, draughts and merels were popular games at all social levels, and played by both men and women. The V&A board combined them in a luxury compendium.(14) Games of strategy and pursuit were of course played for pleasure and intellectual exercise, then as now, but games were also a moral and social arena. Chess was commonly associated with courtly love, and seen as an enduring symbol of romantic engagement and intimacy.(15) The Church’s long-standing disapproval of game playing and gambling is reflected in contemporary moralising prints that highlight game playing as a risky activity, associated with foolish, dissolute or violent behaviour (fig. 4). The couple shown poised over a games board represents a moment of fine social balance when an innocuous activity may chance to descend into disaster.(16) In contrast, the moral and educational values of board games were also promoted over a long period in manuals and treatises, one of which was written by Augustus the Younger of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel who later ordered from Hainhofer the type of Augsburg Kunstschrank that contained a luxury games board.(17)
The decoration of the V&A’s board embodies these ideas. Given that the games are a form of exercise for the (seated) players, it is apt that much of the engraved imagery relates to movement – chasing, lunging, pouncing, fluttering, dancing and striking. Battles and skirmish scenes are appropriate to strategies for chess; hunting scenes of chase and capture form a neat accompaniment to backgammon and draughts, and may also have appealed to the owner’s sense of social rank through an evocation of aristocratic privileges and lifestyle. Sea-monsters might symbolise the ‘peril’ faced by the loser of the game, sphinxes the wisdom or cunning needed to win. Medallion heads of classical and biblical exemplars encourage reflection on moral and educational themes, for those who could recognise them, an invitation made explicit on comparable boards that include fables and proverbs.(18) The anthropomorphic characteristics of the creatures depicted - lions (ferocious or playful), monkeys (mischievous or sinful), birds (wise, foolish, garrulous or argumentative) - presumably imagined the behaviours of the players themselves. Dancing couples evoke the pleasures of social intercourse but also the opportunities that board games could provide for licensed and amorous competition between the sexes, overtly signalled in Matham’s print (fig. 4).(19) For those playing on the boards, winning or losing, the varied depictions of virtue, bravery and vice, wisdom and foolishness, reward and peril, offered a rich play of allusion and diversion perfectly in keeping with the games themselves.
The games board would have appealed to the intellect in two ways: through the range of allusion in its engraved scenes, and – if it was an independent artefact rather than part of an ensemble – by association with similar engraved games boards incorporated within the ambitious Wunderkammern that portray different kinds of human knowledge.(20) In this context, we might also consider the extent to which the games board (and the games pieces themselves, probably also in bone and ebony, that were handled in contact with the board) made an intrinsic appeal to the mind and the senses through their materials and facture.(21) The box is a superbly constructed ensemble of animal, vegetable and mineral products (bone and animal skin glue, woods, gilded metals), which were transformed through a range of artisanal skills into an artefact that is portable, mobile and tactile. Part of its allure lay in the hardness and lustre of the ebony (a wood that is exceptionally difficult to work), and its contrast with the white bone. Given that the bone may well have been regarded as ivory by contemporary viewers, just as it was in the 20th century, the use of these exotic materials in the representation of European graphic imagery may also have been understood as a series of creative transformations; from raw to refined, material to imaginative, foreign to Germanic. The transactions effected by south-German trading networks that brought the raw materials so far across the globe and the manufacturing skills capable of exploiting them result in a product that appealed to the minds, hands and imaginations of its users.(22)
How might the genesis of the engraved games board as a new product type have developed in southern Germany? The form of a hinged games board, richly decorated with figurative designs was not in itself new to the region; in 1537 a magnificent board and counters with carved and inlaid wood plaques and medallions depicting imperial, dynastic, mythological, natural and hunting imagery was created by Hans Kels the Elder in Kaufbeuren near Augsburg, probably for King Ferdinand I, and is of sufficient complexity and richness that it might well have been celebrated in subsequent decades.(23) Later, the idea of applying local skills to luxury games boards may have been prompted by developments in Innsbruck, where in 1575/77 another lavish board with pieces was produced, probably for Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol.(24) This board, signed and dated by the court artist Hans Repfl, is configured for chess, merels and backgammon in the same way as the V&A board, and relates dynastic heraldry to cosmological themes using marquetry of wood and zinc, some based on Virgil Solis designs.
In terms of the black and white scheme of the board under discussion, there is an obvious visual logic in translating engraved designs from one white surface (paper) to another (ivory or bone).(25) Indeed, the idea might seem at least in hindsight an obvious one to have occurred in a region with a well-developed print culture and an industry of engraving, on copper for prints and silver for luxury decorative products.(26) The engraved games board required the application of skills for which southern Germany was famous, from one medium to another, and combined two technologies that were distinctive to the region – engraving and the cutting of ebony. The board type may have offered a further attraction to cabinet-makers in that it offered a luxury ebony product without the requirement of silver inlay or mounts, perhaps thus obviating or reducing the inconvenient dominance of goldsmiths in luxury product design.(27) Yet the translation of engraved images to a new medium is also a transformation, creating a product that unlike paper is inherently substantial, hard (yet smooth to the touch), durable and of demonstrably lasting quality, one that will not become torn, grubby or dog-eared through frequent use.
The handling of the games board as a functional three-dimensional object is also significant: its solidity yet relative light weight, and the precision with which it opens with the satisfying click of its sprung catch, are evocative of the high quality technology, found in guns and clocks, for which southern Germany was famous.(28) We might further speculate whether the hinged action of the board evoked another type of engraved luxury product designed to appeal to the eye, imagination and the intellect: the large illustrated book, or more specifically, the atlas.(29) The 16th century saw the fundamental development of books of printed maps in Europe, with the significant milestone in 1570 of Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. In form, the games board is reminiscent of a book with stiff board covers that are opened and closed, and is not dissimilar in size. The survival of a contemporary miniaturised, engraved metal games board that deliberately imitates the form of a book indicates that a correspondence might well be noticed.(30) The games board’s surfaces offer the crisp, black and white clarity of the printed page. Like a map, the imagery of the games board is layered and non-sequential, demanding nimbleness of eye and mind, as the counters or pieces are moved across ‘territory’ to claim or control it, but unlike a map, the board – legible from both sides – really is a stage for action and interaction on which the seated players enact the dramas of the games.
Could it also be argued that a more complex and ambitious allegorical meaning was intended for the games board, evoking such works as the 1537 Kaufbeuren games board mentioned above or Wendel Jamnitzer’s mechanical fountain allegory of imperial rule commissioned by Maximilian II in 1556 and completed in 1578? The fountain, in which Jamnitzer ‘attempted to replicate the entire divine, human and political cosmos’, portrayed a vast range of imagery, including the Seasons, the Elements (with depictions of living creatures and human industry), Habsburg emperors and peasant dances.(31) In such terms, the board might be construed to portray the benefits and pleasures (from the noble hunt to peasant dances) of imperial rule, which defends its subjects militarily and extends over the creatures of land, sea and air. Furthermore, the arguments that have been made for the newly assertive character of artisan skill and knowledge in southern Germany at this period are perfectly applicable to the products of cabinet-makers.(32) Given the disparity in scale and context between Jamnitzer’s fountain and a luxury games board, such a claim might be pitched only half seriously (like the games enjoyed on the board), and the answer might be simply that players could construe a complex allegory if they were so inclined, or not, as the case may be.
Analysis of the print sources on the V&A games board
Having explored some possible uses and meanings of the board – social, moral, intellectual and technical – this article now considers the design sources. By probing beyond a general sense that the board relies on printed designs, and trying to map them in detail the intention here is to shed light on the processes of design and manufacture. Much of the decoration on the V&A board uses as its design sources the prints of three printmakers: Virgil Solis (1514-62), Hans Collaert (about 1525-80) and Heinrich Aldegrever (1502-55/61), whose published works demonstrate that the board cannot have been made before 1582. The board is unlikely to date later than 1610, since it lacks the prominent bands of scrolling stem decoration which tend to characterise Augsburg ebony cabinet-makers’ work from about that date.(33)
Two prints produced by Virgil Solis’s sizeable Nuremberg workshop were the sources for seven of the eight convex corner bosses on the exterior faces (fig. 5).(34) These are engraved with busts of ancient exemplars which are worn but still basically legible. Six heads can be identified from their inscriptions on the Solis print showing a frieze with six busts, as Hector, Jahel, Haniwal (Hannibal), Esther, Judit and Josef (fig. 6). A seventh, the female head with headdress and streaming locks comes from a print showing four busts in medallions, which labels the head ‘QU’, but whose identity is uncertain. The eighth head, showing a bearded man in breastplate and helmet has not yet been identified. Those engraving the source prints onto bone enlarged and adjusted them to fit the circular format, simplifying some details, omitting the names and altering some of the necklines, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of translating a flat design onto a convex surface.
Around the chess and merels boards, eight narrow panels (47 mm deep) show hunting friezes with 14 hunters on foot and 44 hounds hunting hares, boars and bears (fig. 7). Hunt friezes derived from Solis prints seem to be a common feature of engraved games boards, endorsing the ‘immense popularity’ of his single-sheet prints with craftsmen of the period.(35) On other games boards they are sometimes positioned on the raised borders around the backgammon boards, where they would be particularly appropriate for a game of pursuit.(36) In fact, these eight narrow friezes are each repeated once with minor changes, cleverly varied by the disposition of clouds and trees to punctuate the figures. Nine groups of figures have been selected from four or five Virgil Solis etched hunting scenes, and repeated, sometimes reversed, in a tussocky landscape (fig. 8).(37) Along the narrow edges of both boards, narrow compartments (18 mm high) contain reduced versions of the same motifs, engraved at the same size as the prints themselves.
The sources used were not only ornament prints. An undated set of etched playing cards by Virgil Solis, featuring suits of monkeys, parrots, peacocks and lions, provided the sources for the monkeys, lions and at least two of the parrots which adorn the merels board (figs 9-12).(38) At the corners of the outer border are four monkeys aping human behaviour, taken from three cards of the suit: I, II and VI (fig. 10). Between the monkeys are 16 lions, mostly as paired, facing figures. These were selected and copied somewhat cursorily, from five cards: IIII, V, VI, VIII and X (fig.11). The four parrots depicted singly in the corner roundels are simplified from three cards: IIII, VII and X (fig. 12). In the inner section are ten birds perched on branches, some of which may be read as eagles disputing with smaller birds, surrounding a central owl on a mound. These birds were selected from five engraved friezes with birds by Hans Collaert probably dating from the 1560s or early 1570s, which were based on friezes with birds designed by Virgil Solis during the second half of the 1550s (fig. 13).(39)
The largest individual motifs on the board are the four sea monsters (fig. 14), aligned along the centre of the backgammon boards, where they would remain clear of tablemen (counters) during the game. They are arranged in confronting pairs, separated by facing sphinxes and book-ended by profile masks. These four monsters, supplemented by four more, are also used on the borders of the chess and merels boards. All eight are taken from a set of prints entitled Pars Altera, designs for pendants by Hans Collaert, engraved by Adriaen Collaert, and published posthumously in Antwerp by Philips Galle in 1582 (figs 15a-d).(40) The monsters have been copied without their jewellery settings and relieved of their riders, save one which includes the figure of Tobias (and his dog), kneeling on the monster’s back to cut out its heart, liver and gall. On the backgammon board the monsters have been reproduced closely but not exactly after the prints, three of them at the size they appear on the paper prints, the fourth slightly enlarged. On the borders to the chess and merels boards, the eight monsters, each shown twice, have generally been slightly reduced in height and their tails elongated to suit the long, narrow compartments on the boards. As the two or three monsters dependent on each model are portrayed with small variations in dimension, detail and treatment, it appears likely that they were drawn separately and engraved on bone veneers by different hands, a possibility explored further below.
The facing sphinxes positioned between the monsters were probably adapted by the engraver, at approximately the same size as they were printed on paper, from an ornament print dated 1552 by Heinrich Aldegrever (fig. 16).(41) At the ends of the backgammon centre panels are bearded profile strapwork masks, possibly adapted from those with protruding beards and curling topknots in prints by Lambrecht or Daniel Hopfer.(42) Between each pair of monsters surrounding the chess and merels boards is a breastplated merman with bifurcating tail, a widespread motif probably well-known from German prints derived from Italian works.(43)
Running down the central bars of the backgammon boards are four cartouches, each containing a dancing or processing couple in contemporary dress (figs 17a-b).
Sources for the cartouches have not been found, but the couples are
copied from two sets of engravings by Heinrich Aldegrever, both known as
Small Wedding-Dancers, two after prints
from the 1538 set, and two from the 1551 set (figs 18a-d).(44)
The flat, external borders (56 mm wide) of the backgammon boards are occupied by a frieze of Turkish and Christian horsemen (fig. 19), a theme that is also sometimes illustrated in the carved chess men on European (especially Spanish) boards in this period.(45) Their inclusion as borders to a game of aggressive skirmishing is appropriate, but they also reflect the reality of 16th-century Turkish military incursions towards Vienna. A clear source has not been identified but large single leaf, woodcuts of Turkish horsemen besieging Vienna (1529) by the Nuremberg designer and illustrator Niclas Stör (fl. about 1520, d. 1562-3) may have provided a distant source for some of the figures.(46)
On the backgammon board, the alternating triangular points, whether plain or Moresque, are separated by five pyramidal groups of grotesque figures, repeated across the four main panels. Print sources for these groups have not been found, though analogous characteristics can be seen in ornament prints by Sebald Beham (1500-50), Daniel Hopfer (active in Augsburg 1493-1536), and Georg Pencz (active as a printmaker in Nuremberg from 1523), indicating the currency of such combinations.(47) The points themselves would have been relatively easy to adapt from printed Moresque designs such as those by Virgil Solis.(48)
The analysis of sources underlines both the heavy reliance on printed sources for the design of decorative luxury objects about 1600, and its creative and eclectic character.(49) In this instance motifs were selected from ornament prints, figure scenes, jewellery designs and playing cards. Some, such as the Hans Collaert sea monsters, were probably acquired only shortly before the manufacture of the games board, while others such as Aldegrever’s wedding-dancers had been circulating for many decades. Ebony-veneered and engraved games boards, products most closely associated with Augsburg, may be added to the already extensive list compiled by Dieter Beaujean and Giulia Bartrum of art objects and articles for everyday use for which Virgil Solis prints provide patterns, providing further evidence, were any needed, of the lively and productive artistic interchange between Nuremberg and Augsburg.(50) The scale and design of Solis’s hunting prints – easily applicable with minimal scaling to the raised borders – must have made them especially inviting to use. The V&A board not only endorses their assertion of Solis’s great influence via his single-leaf prints, but also highlights the applicability for decorative craftsmen of his playing cards. The use in south Germany of two sets of prints by a north German artist, Heinrich Aldegrever, reinforces the enduring popularity of his work during the 16th century with craftsmen as well as collectors.(51) For the showpiece engravings at the heart of the board, the selection of Hans Collaert’s prints published in Antwerp underlines the appeal of these designs for the creators of luxury goods other than goldsmiths, and beyond the Antwerp jewellery sector.(52)
The organisation of production
The analysis of print sources presented here provides a reasonably detailed ‘map’ (albeit with certain areas still fuzzy), but what does it reveal of the routes taken from the choice of designs to finished product by those actually involved in making the board. This is of particular note given the supposition that cabinet-makers and engravers, who practised quite separate trades, did not share workshops. How might the design and production of such boards with their multiplicity of engraved designs, so expertly marshalled, be organised? Was the engraving done to order, following a worked-up design with precise dimensions, or were the veneers on such boards engraved in batches to an agreed scale, to be bought in and selected from stock by a cabinet-maker? It is difficult to judge if a paper template or accurate sketch of the engraved scheme would have been warranted at any point. A paper record would have served the interests of the client if s/he had a say in the composition, and assisted in creating a satisfactory composition without gaps, but may have been unnecessary if the cabinet-maker kept a stock of engraved veneers sized to fit standard boards. In this paperless scenario, the cabinet-maker could have composed the design, with or without the client’s participation, placing stock veneers directly onto the bare wood boards, perhaps holding them lightly in place with wax or other tacky paste.(53)
The number of engravers who contributed to the board is difficult to assess. The engraving, though superficially homogeneous, ranges in quality from the cursory to the beautifully controlled and textured. Further evidence that several engravers, working separately, were involved can be seen in those instances where the same motif has been treated with variations, as in the sea monsters on the borders. The transference from paper to bone involved several approaches. A few of the source prints, such as Aldegraver’s dancing couples were replicated essentially intact, and appear as freestanding motifs. Others were selected from larger, more complex prints, and sometimes adjusted to fit the veneer proportions. The main borders depicting military skirmishing and hunting use a third approach. Around the backgammon boards, about 70 mounted horsemen (and a few foot-soldiers) are shown fighting in twos and threes (fig. 19). They are armed variously with swords (or scimitars), pistols, spears, axes, bows and arrows, and carry shields, horns and two standards, one with a chequered design, the other with arrows and crescent moons. What appears to be a running frieze of great variety actually consists of two short friezes, both repeated, to form the long sides of the open board; both ends of the open board consist of four small groups lifted from the two ‘master’ friezes and reconfigured, each small group made up of between two and five soldiers. This economical redistribution of motifs is particularly clever since the repetitions are almost impossible to discern when sitting at the board, the battle effect being one of continual, episodic to-and-fro.
While some designs on the V&A board required a modest degree of scaling up or down in the transfer to bone, it is striking that various printed designs were engraved on bone at the same size as they had been printed on paper, or very close to it. Aldegraver’s dancing couples were replicated at this ‘life size’, inviting the possibility that the engraver pounced them (or a paper copy) directly onto the bone veneer, then interpolated some simple patterning, as on the women’s dresses to suggest a contrasting fabric.(54) Evidently the engraving on bone could not replicate the full subtlety of expression and fine detail of the prints, but hatching and cross-hatching was employed to emulate the play of light and shade represented in the print.
It is clear that the demands made by the cabinet-maker on the engravers were elaborate and specific. The engraved veneers were required in a range of set shapes and sizes with little margin for error. The eight corner bosses engraved with busts of the ancient Worthies use not just any piece of bone but the articular head (ball joint) of the femur, sawn from deer or cattle bones, with the central pit or fovea infilled with a bone peg.(55) The bosses serve a practical function by protecting the exposed surfaces of the main part of the board from abrasion, thus ingeniously making practical use of materials that were commonly available, if one knew where to look. The chequerboard squares or backgammon points with simpler decorative motifs might have been supplied by one engraver or workshop, the hunt scenes by a second, and the highly accomplished large sea monsters by another, but it would seem plausible that the engraver(s) used bone veneers supplied by the cabinet-maker who had the resources to saw and scrape them to the necessary dimensions.(56) Practical wisdom might suggest that the veneers would be required with enlarged borders, allowing them to be trimmed at layout stage. The cropping that is visible on some engraved veneers such as the cartouches with the dancing couples, so that they fit the width of their bars, suggests either that the specification was inaccurate or that they were not made to measure for this particular games board. The idea that engraved veneers could be selected and assembled from ready-made stock is supported by the more general evidence among surviving games boards of standardised dimensions, and the recurrence of similar motifs such as hunt scenes or ancient exemplars as described above.(57) Such a working model would allow the cabinet-maker to offer a recognised type of product that was nonetheless personalised to the client’s own tastes, while also simplifying his production supply chain.
A logical conclusion to this discussion of how engraved games boards were produced could try to imagine the stages of assembly as they might have taken place in the cabinet-maker’s workshop where the various constituent parts were brought together: the wooden carcase, the veneers and the gilded metal hinges and catches. Once the carcases of the two boards had been constructed using glued joints, the screwed hinges could have been fitted temporarily to ensure that the box would close snugly once finished, then removed until later. The likely order of assembly work for each face of each board, and the edges might be as follows: panels of dark veneer (cut to fit the standardised dimensions of boards) were laid over the wooden carcase, allowing for hardwood mouldings and metalwork. The engraved white panels (trimmed to fit if necessary) would be arranged to satisfaction on top of the dark (and presumably recorded carefully in a sketch), outlined with a scoring tool, then removed so that the loose ebony panels could be sawn out using drills and bow saws, and the edges smoothed. The matched dark and white veneers would be reassembled on the carcase like a jigsaw puzzle, and glued down using animal skin glue, held under pressure. On the outer faces, corner bosses and mitred wooden mouldings carefully cut to size could then be pinned and glued into position, and the pinning concealed. To accentuate the design a dark pigment would be rubbed into the engraved lines (if this had not been done already), and any surface finish such as beeswax applied to add lustre. The screwed hinges would be refitted, and the metal catch nailed in place.
a compendium of war, chase and manoeuvre games, the striking appeal of
the V&A games board rests on the teeming variety of its graphic
decoration coupled with its controlled design and precise execution. For
some original users it may also have resonated with more intellectual
themes. For those actually playing games on the board, the engravings
must have enhanced the experience by offering a rich play of allusion
and diversion, both comic and competitive. An analysis of the sources
shows that decorative motifs were selected from a wide range of print
types produced in several printing centres over an extended period of
some 70 years, and re-engraved on bone to help create a distinctive
luxury product, the engraved games board. Furthermore, the indications
that batch methods were used to produce individualised games boards of
apparently inexhaustible decorative variety, suggest a very close
working relationship between cabinet-makers and engravers, and a
particularly flexible and efficient approach to design and
I am grateful to: Anne von Baeyer and Antje Schroeder for translations; Mike Bath, Stefanie Meier-Kreiskott, and Angus Patterson for their comments regarding print sources; Stephanie Douglas, John Martin Robinson, Catherine Sawinski for showing me and sharing information on the gamesboards at Sotheby’s (2007), Arundel Castle and Milwaukee Art Museum respectively; Dana Melchar and Catherine Coueignoux for comments on the order of assembly; Angela McShane, Sarah Medlam, Elizabeth Miller and the two anonymous readers for their comments on the text.
1. Museum no. 567-1899; dimensions closed: length 41.5 cm x width 42 cm x depth 6.6 cm; the central wells 14 mm deep; the corner bosses 33-34 mm diameter. The boards are constructed on a wood carcase which is likely to be oak, and veneered with a tropical hardwood identified visually as ebony, Diospyros crassiflora (about 1.4 mm thick), and engraved bone (between 1.6 and 2.2 mm thick where visible), and with mitred, cyma recta mouldings of ebony; with two etched, gilt-metal butt hinges held by four hand-cut slotted screws (apparently original), hasp and plate with keyhole. Purchased for £115-10-0 from F. E. Whelan Esq., 6 Bloomsbury Street, W.6. via Rollin and Feuardent, (information taken from Museum registered file MA/1/R/475). The board is currently displayed in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries at the V&A.
2. Messrs Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge, nos. 9-13 Wellington Street, Strand on the 19 June, 1899 and the three following days, lot 514. ‘A backgammon and Draught board, of ebony, inlaid with bone, engraved most elaborately with grotesque monsters, hunting subjects, battle scenes &c., the hinges and lock of iron, richly gilt and chased with foliate patterns. Flemish or German work, circ. 1550. 16 ½ in. square; exhibited at S.K.M. Special Loan Collection, 1862.’ According to Smith’s introduction to the sale catalogue, Forman’s collection was housed at his home at Pippbrook House, near Dorking. After his death in about 1889, it passed to his sister-in-law Mrs Burt, and thence to his nephew Major A. H. Browne of Callaly Castle, Northumberland. Evidently, the collection was notable for Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, but also contained (on the fourth day) silver, carvings, arms and metalwork, enamels, majolica, cuir bouilli, snuff boxes, mosaics and carvings (in which last category came lot 514).
3. John C. Robinson, ed., Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Works of Art of the Medieval, Renaissance, and More Recent Periods, on Loan at the South Kensington Museum, June 1862 (London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H. M. Stationary Off., 1862), Part V. Section 37 - Miscellaneous objects, 693, no. 7,878. ‘Backgammon and draught-board in ebony, enriched with engraved ivory [sic] inlay representing grotesque monsters, hunting subjects, battle pieces, &c. The hinges and lock, of silver gilt iron, are chased with foliated patterns. Flemish or German work about 1550. Square, 16 ½in. W.H. Forman, Esq.’
4. For the Spitzer board, now at the Milwaukee Art Museum, see Frédéric Spitzer, La Collection Spitzer: Antiquité, Moyen-Age, Renaissance (Paris: Maison Quantin, 1892), vol. 5, 253, no. 2, pl. 64; Catalogue des Objets d’Art…Collection Spitzer, Paris, June 16, 1893, vol. 1, 217, lot 2989, vol. 2, pl. LXIV; Elizabeth Ourusoff de Fernandez-Gimenez, catalogue entry in Laurie Winters et al, A Renaissance Treasury. The Flagg Collection of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Milwaukee Art Museum (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999), no. 40, 94-6; for the Rothschild board see Sotheby’s Mentmore Sale May 20, 1977, lot 1061 and Sotheby’s London December 12, 1985, lot 292; for the Duke of Norfolk’s board see Simon Jervis, ‘Furniture at Arundel Castle’, The Connoisseur 197. 793 (March 1978), 203-16.
5. Wilfried Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst: Kunstkammerspiele, exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, 21 May – 2 August 1998 (Milan: Skira, 1998), cat. 22-24, 76.
6. Dieter Alfter, Die Geschichte des Augsburger Kabinettschrankes (Augsburg: Historischer Verein für Schwaben, 1986), 28ff.
7. For the history of the games for which these boards were suitable see Harold Murray, A History of Board-games other than Chess (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978), 72ff (draughts), 43ff (larger merels).
8. It seems plausible that owners stored the counters or chessmen inside the lockable box formed by hinged boards, perhaps inside a cloth or leather bag to prevent accidental damage. One German chess board (about 1640) has a fitted drawer with recesses to receive the delicate turned and carved ivory pieces, suggesting a more considered approach to what may have been convenient custom (Victor Keats, The Illustrated Guide to World Chess Sets (New York: St. Martin's Press 1985), 68, pl. 18); another 17th-century German(?) ensemble employs a different design to keep games board and pieces together and consists of a stiff leather box with fitted compartments for the chess pieces, and a compartment for the separate folding wood boards (Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst, cat. 9).
9. For Hainhofer cabinets, see Barbara Mundt, ‘Der Pommersche Kunstschrank’, in Georg Laue, Möbel für die Kunstkammern Europas - Furniture for European Kunstkammer (Munich: Kunstkammer, 2008), 32-41, and Hellmuth Bethe, ‘Das Hainhofer-Spielbrett in Hamburg und seine Verwandten’, in Festschrift für Erich Meyer zum 60. Geburtstag. 29 Oktober 1957: Studien zu Werken in den Sammlungen des Museums für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, ed. by Erich Meyer and Werner Gramberg (Hamburg: Hauswedell, 1959), 183-90. When the cabinet sent by Hainhofer to Duke August of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1631 arrived, most of the drawers and compartments were found to be empty, presumably as a result of theft, but a games board was probably housed in the space beneath a large drawer in the curved base (Renier Baarsen, Duitse Meubelen - German Furniture, (Amsterdam: Zwolle, 1998), 32). The suitability of a games board to a cabinet was not however a new idea, as demonstrated by its inclusion in Gilles Corrozet’s ‘Le Blason Du Cabinet’ (1539) – see Simon Jervis, ‘Les Blasons Domestiques by Gilles Corrozet’, Furniture History (1989): 5-35. The presence of similar games boards in English noble inventories indicates their wide geographical appeal: An ‘Inventory of the plate, Household Stuff, Pictures &c In Kenelworth Castle taken after the death of Robert, Earl of Leycester, 1588’ lists ‘A chess-borde of bone and ebanie, with thirtie and fower men to it, in a leather case’ and ‘A par of tabells of bone inlaid, with divers colors and men to them, in a case of leather’. (Cited in Angus Patterson, Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe, Proud Lookes and Brave Attire (London: V&A Publishing, 2009), 100, 106 (note 116)).
10. During the course of the present study over 20 comparable veneered games boards with engraved ivory or bone, attributable to southern Germany about 1580-1630 have been noted, and numerous others must be presumed to exist.
11. According to Dieter Alfter, the number of master cabinet-makers with their own workshops in Augsburg rose from 137 in 1558, to 200 in 1590 and 210 in 1598. Laue, Möbel für die Kunstkammern Europas, 42. For a general discussion of Augsburg ebony furniture, made from the early 1570s, see also Alfter, Die Geschichte des Augsburger Kabinettschrankes, 28ff.
12. See Wolfram Koeppe, ‘Spielbretter Aus der Sammlung Harbeson im Philadelphia Museum of Art’, Weltkunst 22 (15 November 1992): 3366-8; Laue, Möbel für die Kunstkammern Europas, 42-57, and cat. 4, 82-3, 206-10; Winters et al, A Renaissance Treasury, 94-6; Bethe, ‘Das Hainhofer-Spielbrett in Hamburg und seine Verwandten’, 183ff.
13. For example, Georg Himmelheber, Spiele. Gesellschaftsspiele aus einem Jahrtausend, (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1972), cat. 45, writing about the board veneered with mother-of-pearl, brass, ivory, bone and horn, and inscribed FW in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, no. R201. Himmelheber does not provide specific information on the print sources used. On graphic sources for games boards and pieces see also Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst, 259-68.
14. There is no standard term in English for this type of games board, with the following all having been used in print in recent years: games board, games boards, game board, games box, chess and tric-trac board, boxboards. (In the 16th and 17th centuries, ‘a pair of tables’ was the term generally used.) Similarly, in German, the term Spielbrett is often found alongside Spielkassette or Spielkasten. In considering whether the type under discussion is best characterised as a board or box, it is prudent not to take the purpose of richly decorated boxes (of whatever form) for granted, since Paula Nuttall has convincingly argued that one particular group of 15th-century boxes, traditionally understood ‘as gaming boxes, made to store and carry chess pieces, while serving as portable chessboards when they were turned over’, were intended primarily for an entirely different purpose (Paula Nuttal, ‘Dancing, Love and the “Beautiful Game”: A New Interpretation of a Group of Fifteenth Century ‘Gaming’ Boxes’, Renaissance Studies 24 (2010): 119-41). Here the term ‘games board’ is used, on the basis that its function for the playing of games takes precedence over its use as a box with contents, that it serves more than one game, and that the two boards are not detachable.
15. On the Italian renaissance context see Patricia Simons, ‘(Check)Mating the Grand Masters: The Gendered, Sexualised Politics of Chess in Renaissance Italy’, Oxford Art Journal 16. 1 (1993): 59-74, and Nuttall, ‘Dancing, Love and the “Beautiful Game”’.
16. The engraving by Jacob Matham comes from the series ‘The Consequences of Drunkenness’ (about 1621), with captions in Latin and Dutch that stress the risks of alcohol in encouraging both licentiousness and game playing: ‘Not only does alcohol bring an excess of unchaste behaviour, but against all benefits, it encourages games and gambling’. With thanks to Eloy Koldeweij for the translation.
17. Robert C. Bell, Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 60-61, cited by Winters et al., A Renaissance Treasury, 96. For the activities of Augustus the Younger of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, see Hans and Barbara Holländer, Schachpartie durch Zeiten und Welten, Katalog der Ausstellung im Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (Heidelberg: Edition Braus, 2005), 103, cited in Laue, Möbel für die Kunstkammern Europas, 210.
18. During the 16th century Augsburg’s Roman past (not shared by Nuremberg and Munich) was proudly celebrated. A particularly avid antiquarian was Conrad Peutinger, whose collection of ancient objects was on view in his private courtyard, and whose study and collection of ancient portrait medals was put to the service of Emperor Maximilian’s propaganda (Gregory Jecmen, Freyda Spira, Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings 1475-1540 (London: Lund Humphries, 2012), 28-32). Medallion heads also feature on the following boards: the Flagg collection, Winters et al, A Renaissance Treasury., no. 40, which also depicts fables from Aesop; the Duke of Norfolk’s collection, Simon Jervis, ‘Furniture at Arundel Castle’, 203-16; a board veneered with mother-of-pearl, brass, ivory, bone and horn, in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, (Georg Himmelheber, Spiele. Gesellschaftsspiele aus einem Jahrtausend (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1972), cat. 45); the board sold at Sotheby’s, London 31 October 2007, lot 155, from a private collection, East Anglia (UK), described as ‘Engraved horn, fruitwood, inlaid, ebony games box, inscribed IOM and K. ARTUS; 36cm. high, 36cm. wide, 7cm deep’; Another, strikingly similar games board is described, without further reference, in Keats, The Illustrated Guide to World Chess Sets, 63. Such medallion heads do not tend to feature on games boards dateable after 1615, suggesting that they were regarded as old-fashioned.
19. Dancing couples are also depicted on carved wood game counters thought to have been made in southern Germany during the second half of the 16th century (Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst, cat. 94).
20. See note 9 above, and Arthur MacGregor, Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
21. On the design of games pieces see above, Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst (note 5) and Keats, The Illustrated Guide to World Chess Sets (note 8). Given the lack of silver on the V&A board under discussion it is perhaps more likely that the draughts counters used were made of plain turned ebony and ivory/bone, like those that survive with a 16th-century Spanish games board in the V&A’s collection (no. 154-1900, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O134094/games-board-and-unknown/).
22. The direct supply of ebony to Europe before 1600 was largely through Portuguese trade routes to the African coast and the East Indies. See Adam Bowett, Woods in British furniture making 1400-1900: an illustrated historical dictionary (Wetherby: Oblong Creative, 2012), ‘Ebony’, 69ff.
23. Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst, cat. 104. The board is signed and dated by Hans Kels the Elder and follows designs from the workshop of Jörg Breus the Elder(?). Neither the commissioner nor the person responsible for the intellectual scheme of the design is known.
24. Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst, cat. 114.
25. The chosen aesthetic excludes colour (which was technically possible as bone can be painted or dyed) in favour of monochromatic clarity and precise detail. Around 1600, the taste, particularly in England, for blackwork embroidery might be considered another artisanal response to the appeal of printed images, but it is not suggested here that there was influence between embroidery (which was also worked in other colour threads on a white support) and engraved bone.
26. On Augsburg’s thriving and innovative print culture in the first half of the 16th century, see for example, Jecmen and Spira, Imperial Augsburg.
27. Another possibility, that the engraved games board was a reaction to silver shortages in Augsburg after the devaluation of its currency and the consequences of plague in 1627-8, does not seem to be supported by the stylistic dating. See Alfter, ‘Marked Augsburg Furniture – A Warranty Seal for Provenance and Quality’ in Laue, Möbel für die Kunstkammern Europas, 55.
28. See Hanns Ulrich Haedeke, trans. by Vivienne Menkes, Metalwork (London: Universe Books, 1970).
29. On the development of printed books of maps see Peter Barber, Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art (London: The British Library Publishing Division, 2010).
30. Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst, cat. 90. The games board (about length 10.8 cm x width 8.9 cm x depth 2.5 cm), attributed to 16th-century Augsburg, was probably for travelling. The exterior ‘book covers’ are engraved for chess and merels, and bear inscriptions exhorting the owner to trust in God and remain upright (chess), and to trust that good luck will come (merels); inside are compartments for the games pieces (now missing) and a mirror.
31. See for example, Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 76-7.
32. See, for example, Smith, The Body of the Artisan, passim.
33. See, for example the boards attributed to the workshop of Ulrich Baumgartner, in Philadelphia Museum of Art, no. 64-91-17 (Koeppe, ‘Spielbretter Aus der Sammlung Harbeson, 3366, figs 2-3), and in Laue, Möbel für die Kunstkammern Europas, cat. 4.
34. Dieter Beaujean, comp., Giulia Bartrum, ed., The New Hollstein Virgil Solis part VI (2005 Ouderkerk Aan Den Ijssel: Sound & Vision Publishers in co-operation with the Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2004), nos. 335 Frieze with Six Busts, etching, height 2.9 cm x length 16.8 cm, and 331, Four Busts in Medallions, etching and engraving, height 3.4 cm x length 17 cm. Solis prints with classical busts were probably also used as the sources for a south German set of draughts pieces (about 1580) made of turned wood inset with engraved gold and silver discs (Seipel, Spielwelten der Kunst, cat. 81). For another use of Solis’s print 331 (in New Holstein) on four 16th-century French carved oak doors in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (nos. 798-1895 and 799-1895) see Michael E. Bath, ‘Sixteenth-Century Romayne Heads: Engravings by Virgil Solis Copied on Four Panels in the Victoria and Albert Museum’, in In Nocte Consilium. Studies in Emblematics in Honor of Pedro F. Campa, ed. by John T. Cull and Peter M. Daly, Saecula Spiritalia 46 (Baden-Baden: Valentin Koerner Verlag, 2011).
35. Dieter Beaujean, comp., Giulia Bartrum, ed., The New Hollstein Virgil Solis part I (2005 Ouderkerk Aan Den Ijssel: Sound & Vision Publishers in co-operation with the Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2004), xix.
36. On the Sotheby's, 2007 board (see note 15) the hunting friezes are very similar in character to those by Solis but are not identical. The board also depicts four standing figures derived from prints of the Nine Worthies by Virgil Solis (Jane S. Peters, ed., German Masters of the Sixteenth Century: Virgil Solis Intaglio Prints and Woodcuts, The Illustrated Bartsch 19, part 1, (New York, Abaris Books, 1987), 36-8), and eight roundel male heads which are said in the sale catalogue entry to ‘derive from Solis’s designs’. The similarity in design and execution suggests that these engraved veneers were produced in the same workshop as those on the V&A board.
37. Beaujean, Bartrum, The New Hollstein Virgil Solis part VI, nos. 498, 501, 505, 514, 531.
38. Beaujean, Bartrum, The New Hollstein Virgil Solis part VI, nos. 987, 988, 992 (monkeys), 1029, 1030, 1031, 1033, 1035 (lions), 1016, 1019 and 1022 (parrots).
39. Ann Diels and Marjolein Leesberg, comps, Marjolein Leesberg and Arnout Balis, eds, The New Hollstein The Collaert Dynasty part VI (2005 Ouderkerk Aan Den Ijssel: Sound & Vision Publishers in co-operation with the Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2005), nos. 1600, 1602, 1604, 1606 and 1610. For discussion of Collaert’s debt to Solis, see xlv-xlvi.
40. Leesberg and Balis, The New Hollstein The Collaert Dynasty part VI. Designs for Pendants II with Sea Monsters, 1654-63. The prints used for the games board are: 1655, 1656, 1657, 1659, 1660, 1661, 1662 and 1663.
41. Ursula Mielke, comp., Holm Bevers and Christiane Wiebel, eds, The New Hollstein German Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts 1400-1700, Heinrich Aldegrever (Rotterdam: Sound & Vision Interactive, 1998), no. 286, Ornamental Design with Mask, Two Cornucopia of Fruit and Two Sphinxes Below, 1552, height 14.5 cm x width 5.2 cm.
42. See Lambrecht Hopfer, ed. by R. A. Koch, The Illustrated Bartsch 17 [VIII/iv] (New York: Abaris Books, 1981), for example 29 (531), Ornament with Winged Horses.
43. See, for example the prints by Sebald Beham (active in Nuremberg from 1519): Hollstein III, 141, 239 or Hollstein III, 134, 227, and Agostino Veneziano after Raphael or Giovanni da Udine, Frieze with an Eros and a Siren (Konrad Oberhuber, ed., The Illustrated Bartsch 27. The Works of Marcantonio Raimondi and of his School (New York: Abaris Books, 1978), 539 (386)).
44. Bevers and Wiebel, The New Hollstein, Heinrich Aldegrever, nos. 145, 149, (1538), 158, 159 (1551).
45. Keats, The Illustrated Guide to World Chess Sets, 51.
46. See Walter L. Strauss, ed. by Niklas Stoer, The Illustrated Bartsch, German Masters of the Sixteenth Century, 13 (New York: Abaris Books, 1984) for example 1302.045 e, f, g from the series ‘The Besiegers of Vienna’.
47. See for example Sebald Beham, R. A. Koch, ed., The Illustrated Bartsch, Early German Masters, 16 [VIII/ii] (New York: Abaris Books, 1978), 238 (218), 243 (220); Daniel Hopfer, R. A. Koch, ed., The Illustrated Bartsch, Early German Masters, 17 [VIII/iv] (New York: Abaris Books, 1981), 90 (495); Georg Pencz, R. A. Koch, ed., The Illustrated Bartsch, Early German Masters, 16 [VIII/iii] (New York: Abaris Books, 1978), 124 (359).
48. Beaujean, Bartrum, The New Hollstein Virgil Solis part VI, 817, or 908-9 (triangular designs). Precise sources have not been found (and were perhaps not necessary) for some of the commonly found ornament such as the various rosettes and quatrefoils, and the various narrow borders.
49. For discussion of this phenomenon in England, see Anthony Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997).
50. Beaujean, Bartrum, The New Hollstein Virgil Solis part I, xx-xxii.
51. Bevers and Wiebel, The New Hollstein, Heinrich Aldegrever, 13. (See note 22).
52. Leesberg and Balis, The New Hollstein The Collaert Dynasty part VI, xliv-xlv.
53. Embroidered garments of the period provide one possible analogy in terms of the processes by which a complex design could be agreed between client, designer and craftsmen, in that they required effective collaboration between client, tailor, seamstress and embroiderer. See Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns, Book 1 (London: V&A Publishing, 2011).
54. Goldsmiths work of the period may often be of a size where there is a possibility of 1:1 transfer between source print and the finished product, but in England at least, goldsmiths ‘succeeded in producing fashionable continental-style Mannerist objects without apparently making much use of actual prints’. (Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, 201.) It is generally assumed that the ability to scale up a design accurately was a necessary part of every competent craftsman’s training. For the practice of scaling designs up and down by embroiderers see Susan North, ‘The Falkland Jacket: Sources, Provenance and Interpretation of an Emblematic Artefact’, Emblematica 14 (2005): 127-53, esp. 133-4.
55. I am grateful to Richard Sabin and Louise Tomsett of The Natural History Museum, London (Department of Zoology) who examined the board and identified the white veneers as bone, probably cattle or deer. ‘The pale (almost white) colour of the inlays suggests that the bones used were degreased before working’. Similar corner bosses are found on the Philadelphia Museum of Art board, no. 64-91-6, Eger, 1670-90 (see Koeppe, ‘Spielbretter Aus der Sammlung Harbeson’, 3366-8, note 7). On the board sold at Sotheby's, London 31 October 2007, lot 155, (see note 15), raised, corner buttons (20 mm diameter), fulfil a similar function but were apparently always plain, and are sawn flat.
56. For comparison, tailors provided embroiderers with marked, uncut fabric to be decorated (North and Tiramani, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns, Book 1).
57. In terms of dimensions, a large proportion of the veneered games boards considered during the course of this study fall within the range of 38-42 cm (square or nearly square) when closed. The fairly standardised dimensions of many surviving games pieces also supports the idea that luxury games boards would tend, for the sake of convenience, to be produced to conventional dimensions.