THE EMPERORS’ CHESS-TABLE
The design of this table is in the Renaissance style which was fashionably revived in the mid-19th century. It was a highlight of Elkington’s medal winning stand at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle and the exquisite quality of its manufacture showcases the superiority of their design studio.
Each corner of the top is set with a finely painted enamel portrait roundel depicting a great Emperor from history; in allegory of the cunning and military strategy needed to win a battle of chess. The Emperors shown are Alexander the Great who created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to Egypt. Charlemagne who, circa 750-800 AD, was the first emperor of western Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire three centuries earlier. Tamerlane, or Timur, was a Mongol ruler of the 14th century who conquered West, South and Central Asia and founded the Timurid dynasty. Napoleon was Emperor of France and ruled much of Western Europe in the early 19th century before being defeated by the British and Russian forces at the Battle of Waterloo.
THE DESIGN – ALBERT WILLMS
‘Nous aurons toutefois plus de peine à prouver notre dire en montrant la table à échecs de style Renaissance, en émail cloisonné taillé d'épargne et peint, du même orfèvre, et dont les portraits peints sur or dans les coins sont, comme il est à propos sur une table où se livrent des batailles, où se font de grandes opérations stratégiques, ceux des quatre plus fameux guerriers du monde : Napoléon, Charlemagne, Alexandre et Tamerlan; les pieds sont émaillés sur vermeil. L'auteur de ce beau meuble est M. Willms, qui est à la tête des ateliers de sculpture et de dessin de M. Elkington, à Birmingham, où il dirige depuis quatorze ans les travaux artistiques de la maison’ (J. Mesnard, op.cit, p. 198).
The ‘Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue of the Paris Exhibition’ published in London, mistakenly credits the design not to Albert Willms but to Léonard Morel-Ladeuil, another famous French silver designer working for Elkington. The error is subsequently corrected by the following addendum published in the 1867 Art Journal:
‘We were in error in assigning to M[onsieur]. Ladeuil the production of the chess-table of which we gave an engraving in our Illustrated Catalogue of the Paris Exhibition. It is the work of M[onsieur]. Willms, an artist of high genius, to whom, indeed, the firm of Elkington is indebted for much of its renown, inasmuch as nearly all its issues, during many years past, have been directed by this master-mind, who is, in a word, "the artist of the establishment". The chess-table is but one of many productions that, in Paris, evidence the ability of M[onsieur]. Willms, who is admitted, by universal assent, among the great men of the Exhibition.’
Auguste Adolphe Willms, known as Albert Willms, a Parisian, was trained under Klagmann, Diéterle and Constant. He came to England after the revolution of 1848 and worked for the emigré firm of Morel & Co. which had been recently established. Returning to Paris for a time he worked with Christofle, Froment-Meurice and Paillard. He prepared designs for the International Exhibition of 1855 and was appointed head designer for Elkingtons in the late 1850s, a position held until his death in 1899. He came to the attention of the English public with his designs for the 'Pompeian' dessert service shown at the 1862 London International Exhibition.
In June 1968 this table was sold with an enticing reference to a possible provenance of considerable significance:
'Said to have been at one time in the collection of Tsar Alexander II'.
Tsar Alexander II of Russia reigned from 1855 until his assassination in 1881. He is often described as the most sympathetic and intelligent of the 19th century Romanovs. In June 1867 the Tsar, accompanied by his sons, Alexander and Vladimir, arrived to attend the Exposition Universelle as the guest of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, staying at the Elysée Palace.
It is likely that Tsar Alexander II did visit the Elkington stand at the 1867 Exhibition where he would have seen the chess-table. Elkington’s directors, perhaps having made the Tsar’s introduction at the 1867 exhibition, later secured his permission to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg and to replicate in electrotype over 200 items from the Kremlin and the Hermitage, for display at the South Kensington Museum (V), including the celebrated Jerningham Wine Cooler by Charles Kandler (the silver original is in the Hermitage Museum; the Elkington electrotype in the V. N°1884:1-122).
It also suited the purposes of The Tsar to attend the 1867 Exhibition (against the advice of his ministers), as his amour and soon-to-be mistress and later second wife, Princess Catherine Dolgorukova was in Paris at the behest of her brother, who was trying to marry her off to a Count Strogoffski, military attaché to the Russian Embassy in Paris, and thereby end her liaison with the Tsar. The count was loyal to his monarch and played along, and realized too late that he had been duped and Katia, as she was known, is said to have become the Tsar's de facto mistress after the attempt to assassinate him at Longchamps on 6th June 1867, a few days after arriving in the city. Tsar Alexander and Katia already had three children when they formed a morganatic marriage on 6 July 1880, less than a month after the death of the Tsarina. Therefore if the Tsar did acquire the table at the 1867 Exhibition, it is possible that following his assassination in March 1881 it entered the possession of his wife Katia, now Princess Yurievskaya. She left Russia shortly after the death of her husband and settled in Paris and later at Cannes, where she died in 1922. The countess took with her many of the personal possessions of the late Tsar from their private apartments in the Winter Palace. Though the connection remains tantalisingly tenuous it is a happy thought that this remarkable couple, who so valued their quiet evenings together, might have played chess on this marvellous table.
ELKINGTON & CO.
From relatively small beginnings as manufacturers of gilt-toys, spectacle cases and silver-mounted scent bottles, the firm of Elkington rose to prominence when its founder George Richards Elkington perfected and patented in 1840 the technique of electroplating. The invention revolutionised the silver-plate industry, particularly as Elkington allowed other manufactures under licence, including Christofle et Cie. of Paris, to use the process. When allied with the simultaneous invention of producing multiples by electrotyping, electroplating allowed sufficient quantities of silverplate to be produced to satisfy the demands of the burgeoning middle-class. Suddenly silvered cutlery, teapots, claret jugs and decoration were no longer the preserve of the ultra-rich. The huge demand transformed Elkington and Christofle into manufacturers on an industrial scale. Elkington continued however to show artistic commitment by producing exact copies in electrotype, with silver, gold or bronze finishes, of some of the greatest historical vases and vessels of ancient and medieval art. They thus responded to that peculiarly Victorian brand of historic kleptomania, and the desire of the bourgeois to own objects which convey lineage and connoisseurship.
Bolstering their credentials as the archetypal manufacture of ‘industrial art’ and to ensure their output reflected the latest fashions, Elkington employed the finest artists of the day to produce unique designs, including Benjamin Schlick, Pierre-Emile Jeannest, Leonard Morel-Ladeuil, Auguste Adolphe Willms and Edward Welby Pugin, G. Halliday and Christopher Dresser. Therefore, although Elkington produced a vast output of all types of silver and electroplate, the huge revenues this generated allowed them to commission artists to craft ‘haute couture’ objets d’art for display and so demonstrate the supreme capabilities of their workshops.
The present chess-table is exemplary of the finest exhibition quality works of art produced by Elkington. It demonstrates the latest design and processes of manufacture that Elkington perfected for their medal winning stand at the 1867 Paris Exhibition. The caryatid herms, frame and griffon-mask feet are of gilt and silvered electroformed copper. The cream, sky-blue and purple enamelled panels are made by electro-deposition (electroforming), providing cavities for the enamels. The overall effect is similar to the champlevé technique, where enamel infills incised or indented metal.