During the Victorian era a variety of games both old and new were manufactured to satisfy the needs of a society experiencing a new culture of leisure. Of particular popularity at this time were game compendiums - collections of games suitable to play with a wide variety of company housed in a container made of fine wood. Freeman’s is pleased to be offering a late Victorian games compendium in its upcoming auction English & Continental Furniture and Decorative Arts, to be held October 6, 2015. The games contained in its finely grained oak case speak to both popular activities of the time as well as changes in social mores.
Included within the box are a wide variety of game pieces, three decks of playing cards, and a painted metal set of jockey mounted horses used for a horse racing game played on one side of a threefold leather board also tooled with playing surfaces for checkers, chess and backgammon. Of particular charm are a set of leather Whist and Bezique markers used to play two of the most popular card games in the Victorian era. A predecessor of Bridge, Whist first became popular in the 18th century when it was played as a form of gambling in gaming clubs and coffee houses. In the 19th century however attitudes toward gambling became more conservative and Whist became fashionable as a casual after dinner game played by the middle and upper classes. Bezique also enjoyed great popularity enduring into the early 20th century. By this time it had unfortunately become regarded somewhat symbolically as another form of leisure enjoyed by the increasingly out of touch members of the aristocracy; tellingly, it was recorded in the Tsarita’s diary as the last game played by Nicholas II and Alexandra on the night before the Romanovs were executed.
Another intriguing feature of the box is the lower front compartment; when the right portion of the front is pushed, the mirror backed cover swivels into the box to reveal a semi-circular tray on which stands ebonized and died boxwood chess pieces. Despite its long history as a social and intellectual pastime, the first chess club was not formed in England until 1810. The Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 brought further advances to the game; at the time chess was played by different rules throughout Europe, and the great conference of minds stimulated by the exhibition also gave cause to the standardization of the game’s rules, a charge led by Howard Staunton, chess columnist for the Illustrated London News, in collaboration with a host of top players from around the world.
Of final note is the horse racing game included in the compendium. An innocent and simple game not typically associated with betting, it ironically speaks to a dichotomy in socially prescribed beliefs and practical reality at the time. Despite the Victorians largely derogatory view towards gambling as a social ill, the popularity of horse racing led to the establishment of the first major commercialized gambling industry in England in the 19th century. Correspondingly a large number of professional bookmakers, newspaper analysts of the sport and for profit tipsters developed, the latter of which sold calculations on the horses’ odds, an important aspect of betting that lent an intellectual credence to an otherwise distasteful pastime.
This Victorian games compendium, manufactured by the Chad Valley Company circa 1885, will be offered in our October 6 auction English & Continental Furniture & Decorative Arts.