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What’s in the Box? Terracotta Chess Set

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

Here’s the latest story from our What’s in the Box display.

Piecing together the history of the Terracotta chess set.

When carefully opening one of our hundreds of storage boxes I found, what I thought was, an extraordinary chess set. Each piece is marked on the base with a unique number, which told me that these had been donated to Hove Museum, so to find out more I looked for the original entry in the Museum register. To my dismay, all that was written was “21 chessmen in coloured terracotta with ivory bases. Period of Nelson” and that the donation was made in 1931 by a W. Wilkinson.

Like many Register entries in the past, frustratingly this description told us nothing of a specific date of production or where the set was made. Indeed the donor may not have known. To try and find out this information I had to go back to the objects and dig a bit further.

For ‘Period of Nelson’ I needed to know about Admiral Horatio Nelson, the famous British naval Captain – who was born in 1758 and died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. To work out where the figures might have been made I started looking at the overall design of the figures, which did not appear to be English in style. The King and Queen, both had their hair in long flowing tresses and the soldiers uniforms were definitely not an English design. This made me question – could they be French?

So with two clues so far – a period pre 1805 and possibly French – then could this set depict King Louis XVI of France, who was executed in 1793? Perhaps one of our visitors may know more about this period, or old chess sets or have seen a similar set elsewhere? If you have anything to add please do tell our staff!

There are other questions which might be harder to answer…the Register entry also adds ‘Remarks: The set has been made complete by Major Sutton.’ As the set is incomplete (21 of 32 pieces) and some figures not currently on display have damage, one wonders – what was Major Sutton’s contribution?? We may never know.

Find out More

Follow the What’s in the Box category on our blog to see what new items have come out from our stores.

If you visit Hove Museum in Church Road, Hove, look out for our What’s in the Box? display. 

Joy Whittam, Collections Assistant