A few days ago I read an article by the nineteenth century chess commentator, Charles Tomlinson, in which he used some sketches of chessmen to illustrate his text. Each picture was credited to "Flaxman." I was unfamiliar with the name so I dug a little deeper and learned he had been a sculptor, actually a famous and highly respected sculptor who did a lot of work for Joshua Wedgwood - the manufacturer of the depicted chess set.
John Flaxman got his start in sculpture, and in his relationship with Wedgwood, through his father, John Sr., who had been a Wedgwood sculptor himself.
According to John Flaxman - 1755-1826 by W.G. Constable (2008):
"A drawing of the whole set was sent to Wedgwood in March 1785, and is now in the Etruria Museum. The original designs include three kings and three queens, castle, knight and bishop, and eight pawns, all different. Somne of the wax models prepared from the final designs are also at Etruria and embody Flaxman's own ideas. When carried out in jasper ware, however,
variations were introduced, and there is no evidence how far this was done with Flaxman's knowledge and consent, except in the case of the three sets in the Soane Museum, which belonged to Flaxman and were presumably approved by him.
The main interset of the chessmen is their revealing the early influence upon Flaxman of Gothic art - an influence more or less present in all his later work, which justifies Nathaniel Marchant's acute remark that "his [Flaxman's] designs are a mixture of the Antique and the Gothic."
The 1866 book by Eliza Meteyard, The Life of Joshua Wedgwood, was more detailed:
"In December 1784, and March 1785, Flaxman was employed upon his celebrated Chessmen. His custom in many cases seems to have been to send Wedgwood a rapid sketch of a proposed work, and when aproved of, a more elaborate drawing was made. It was probably so in this instance. The drawing sent to Etruria in March 1785, and charged 6l. 6s. in the bill, was that from which the figures were modelled. At a later date Herbert Crofts, a resident at Oxford, and the author of a grammar, and some other literary works, sought to obtain this drawing. After ordering a suite of English medals, a set of Chessmen, and 'the head of his old friend, Dr. Johnson' he thus wrote: 'Provided you do not hang up Flaxman's drawing of your chessmen, I shall be very glad to give it houseroom amongst my prints and drawings, and he, I'll answer for it, wouild not be sorry.' Happily this request was not listened to. Wedgwood had become one of the greatest admirers of Flaxman's genius. The drawing was carefully preserved, and stil remains one of the treasures of the manufactory at Etruria.
True to that keeping which was one of the minor canons of his art, and one to be found in alliance with all his best works, Flaxman recollected that Chess was essentially a game of the Gothic, Frankish, and Medieval periods, and that any art in connection with its. representative signs must relate thereto. Hence instead of having recourse to classical types, as an inferior artist might have done, he evidently made the effigies and tombs, as also the painted glass in our abbeys, cathedrals, and churches, the models from which he drew his king and queen, his knights and ladies, his archer and horseman. He was of opinion that when a story had to be told, no clue to its real history should be forgotten2— hence we can fancy him reading old ballads, and chronicles, for the adventures of St. George and the Dragon, and the stories of the Faithful Knight and Virtuous Lady. He may have gone to Shakespeare for the fool, and to the ballads of Robin Hood and Chevy Chase for the type of his bowman or archer. His study of Grecian models, and his habit of delineating the human form under its most beautiful and perfect aspects necessarily served him as much in the figure of a mediaeval knight, as in that of a Roman legionary, or a Grecian warrior. Yet something more than this was required ; and Flaxman had ability to give it. It was necessary to convey the
attitudes and expression incident to the habits and trains of thought of a rude but chivalrous period. And this we have; for the knight is knightly, and the queen is queenly—even after the manner in which they live to us in the old chronicles and ballads.
The figures were generally made in the white jasper body; but occasionally they were blue or black, the pediment remaining white. They were largely exported to the continent, especially to Germany and Russia.
Later in 1875 Eliza Meteyard wrote in The Wedgwood handbook: A manual for collectors :
"These celebrated figures for the Game of Chess were drawn by Flaxman for Wedgwood at various dates between October, 1783, and March, 1785. His custom in many cases, as in this, seems to have been to first send a rapid sketch of a proposed work, and when approved of, to make a more elaborate drawing. That from which the Chessmen were finally modelled was sent to Etruria in March, 1785, and charged £6 6s. in a subsequent bill. This exquisite drawing, marked "J. Flaxman inv[t] et delini[t]," is still preserved at Etruria. The date and place of origin of the Game of Chess are doubtful, some considering the game to be derived from the East, others that it was invented in the fifth century of our era. Thus free to choose, Flaxman selected the Medieval period of art, and made the effigies and tombs, as also the painted glass windows in our abbeys, cathedrals, and churches, the models from which he drew his king and queen, his knights and ladies, his archer and horseman.
The figures were generally made in white jasper; but occasionally they were blue, black, or pale green, the pediments remaining white. The form of the base varied, being oval, round, or square. In an invoice of Dec. 6, 1787, the various figures—king, queen, knights, men, bishops, castles—are charged 3s. Id. each, the figures being blue, green, as also white,—"
Original sets of the Chessmen still remain, and are very valuable. They are to be recognized by their exquisite finish, detail, and fine colour, and are perfect gems of art. Copies from the old moulds are still made at Etruria."
Figurines cast from the original molds:
Flaxman used the face and figure of the most well-known actress of the day for different pieces of sculpture. He even used Sarah Siddon (in her role as Lady Macbeth, Feb. 1885) as the model for all three of his chess queens. Several places (including the House of Staunton) in mentioning this fact, have erroneously added that actor Charles Kemble was the model for the King. Since Charles Kemble was only 10 years old when the chessmen were cast, that's highly unlikely. But even more interesting is that Sarah Siddon (pictured below) , born Sarah Kemble, was Charles Kemble's much older sister. She and Charles were two of Roger Kemble's twelve children. Kemble was an amazing family of overachieving thesbians and Sarah was the greatest acheiver of them all.
Sarah Kemble Siddon, actress and Chess Queen model