Wedgwood Chessmen Designed by John Flaxman in 1783 – A History

Flaxman’s chessmen could not accurately be described as ‘figures’, though they are collected now more for their decorative qualities than for play. His bill dated 30th October 1783 charges £1.5.0 for ‘A figure of a fool for chess, probably a model in wax, and three guineas is charged on the same bill, but dated more than a year later, for ‘Three days employed in drawing bas relief vases, Chessmen etc’. On 5th February 1784 Flaxman wrote to Josiah: ‘I return you many thanks, for the liberal praise you bestow on my chess figures’. As the oven books for 1783 shows, they were already in production in December, and in 1785 Flaxman produced a remarkable trompe l’oeil drawing in pen and wash, showing the eighteen different pieces arranged on two shelves. This drawing, for which he charged six guineas, may have been intended for use in the Greek Street Showrooms, but there is also the possibility that, although not sold until 1785, it was originally executed in 1783 to give Joshua a clear idea of the proposed designs, It would have been invoiced later, when Josiah decided to keep it.

Chessmen were made in solid colours, and in white jasper with blue, green or lilac dip bases. According to Barnard, as many as 130 sets were sold between. 1785 and 1795. Their design is a remarkable example of eighteenth century Gothick, seldom seen in ceramics.

There have been many articles written by Wedgwood Specialists, who are and were far more knowledgable than me. Including one of the best, Robert J. Reichner who wrote in great detail many years ago and Henry Buton of The Buton Museum of Wedgwood and many others.

There were many theories and stories written about, Identification of Wedgwood Chess Pieces.

The major one being, ‘that if it does not say WEDGWOOD on the base or back of the piece, then it is NOT WEDGWOOD. (Except in the case of some of the earliest pieces)
There are also ways to approximately date the pieces and they were made in different clays and stone etc, which usually cured at different speeds and ended up as different sizes.

3 thoughts on “Wedgwood Chessmen Designed by John Flaxman in 1783 – A History

  1. I have since found out that Wedgwood are no longer making any more of the Chess sets or even single pieces. even for me.
    As they are getting very scarce now, I will have to rethink about selling any, but I could be tempted into swapping them for old Chess Pieces made by Major British Pottery Manufacturers or very rare others.

  2. I am looking for Minton Chess Pieces to complete 2 chess sets. They are like small Children or Cherubs. I need 8 Pawns in Green also I am looking for 2 Bishops, 1 Queen and 1 King in Pink. People in the Stoke on Trent area who used to work at the Minton Factory might have some put away in the loft or know someone who might be able to help. These were made in the 1950′s.
    I also want to aquire some very early pieces made in Parian and much more detailed than the 1950′s China Pieces.

    Any odd pieces or full sets would be appreciated.

    I am a Collector not a Shop.

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