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Madden's Moves

James Robinson, Curator of Late Medieval Collections, Department of Prehistory and Europe, The British Museum

Posted: Friday, January 20, 2012

«Sir Frederic Madden (1801–1873), the man who orchestrated the purchase of the Lewis Chessmen, was one of the most accomplished curators in the history of the British Museum and Library (which were linked from 1753 to 1973). Madden first worked at the library in 1826 on the classified catalogue of printed books. His brilliance as a reader of medieval scripts and his great knowledge of manuscripts saw him rise to Assistant Keeper in 1828 before taking up the keepership of the Department of Manuscripts in 1837.»

The British Museum

The British Museum, London

Among Madden's many interests was an enthusiasm for board games, and it was this that drove him not only to press for the purchase of the chessmen (at a time when post-Roman antiquities were not the fashion) but also impelled him to write the most scholarly work on the figures to date.

Sir Frederic Madden

William Drummond (British, 1826–1849). Portrait of Sir Frederic Madden, 1837. Oil on canvas. The British Museum, London (Painting.53) © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Madden was also an adept diarist. His journal has been described as one of the great diaries of the nineteenth century, loaded with social comment and details of academic life. He records the introduction of "beastly envelopes and sticking stamps" by the Post Office in 1840 and expresses his excitement about the London Underground, which he first used in 1863. He repeatedly laments social reforms to which he attributes a decline in standards of behavior, observing: "This is one of the effects of raising the lower classes and giving them holidays." In a characteristically informative entry for "17th October 1831," Madden describes the arrival of a visitor to the museum:

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Henry Raeburn (Scottish, 1756–1823). Portrait of Sir Walter Scott, 1822. Oil on canvas. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (PG 1286)

Sir Walter Scott came at two o'clock and stayed about an hour with me. I had the pleasure of looking over with him a set of very curious and ancient chessmen brought to the museum this morning for sale by a dealer from Edinburgh named Forrest. . . . They . . . . are the most curious specimens of art that I ever remember to have seen. . . . There are 82 pieces of different descriptions, all made (apparently) of the teeth of the sea-horse, or morse, of which number 48 are the superior chess-men forming part of four or five sets, but none of them perfect per se, although two complete sets can be selected from them. . . . They will require some research and as the whole probably will be engraved in the Archaeologia, I shall say nothing more of them here. The price asked for them is 100 gns. If our Trustees do not purchase them, I fear the sets will be broken up and sold separately, which will be a great pity.

Madden's concerns that the hoard should not be split up demonstrates great sensitivity to the archaeological integrity of the find. As events unfolded, it materialized that a number of the chess pieces had already made their way into private hands since their discovery. Eleven extra pieces passed through the collections of Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe and Lord Londesborough before their acquisition in 1888 by National Museums, Scotland, where they remain today. (The Edinburgh chessmen and a number of the British Museum pieces were shown together in an exhibition that toured Scotland in 2010–11.)

The importance of the Lewis hoard was understood, too, by the Keeper of Antiquities, Edward Hawkins, who pressed for its acquisition to the Trustees in the following terms: "There are not in the museum any objects so interesting to a native Antiquary as the objects now offered to the Trustees."

The purchase was made by the British Museum between November 1831 and January 1832, Hawkins coolly negotiating the price with the dealer down from 100 to 80 guineas, and Madden's article duly appeared in Archaeologia within a year.

Madden's illustrations

Madden's illustrations of a King (1831,1101.78) and a Queen (1831,1101.84), which were published in the article "Historical remarks on the introduction of the game of chess into Europe and on the ancient chessmen discovered in the Isle of Lewis," Archaeologia XXIV (1832).

The article is accompanied by Madden's own lucid and graceful illustrations and includes a comprehensive history of the game of chess. It is to this work that we can credit the earliest and most significant understanding of the Lewis Chessmen. Madden's knowledge of Scandinavian manuscripts equipped him crucially to identify one of the most arresting of the Lewis figures: the Berserker.

Berserkers

Berserkers, ca. 1150–1200. Scandinavian, probably Norway, found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, 1831. Walrus ivory. The British Museum, London (1831,1101.123–.125) © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The Berserker is rendered as an infantryman or foot soldier, taking the position of the rook in the modern game, but he is distinguished from his fellows by a characteristic gesture that shows him biting the top of his shield. There are four Berserkers from the hoard, three at the British Museum and a fourth in National Museums, Scotland at Edinburgh. For his identification Madden cited the Heimskringla, a saga by Snorri Sturlusson written in the thirteenth century that describes the Berserkers as "soldiers of Odin" driven into a self-induced frenzy and biting their shields. It is this unambiguous connection between the chessmen and Norse mythology that places the pieces securely in the Scandinavian realm.

From Madden's description we also learn that a number of the chessmen were stained red. He compares the red pigment that he observed to be as strong as the red of the beetroot. This color combination of red with the natural cream of the ivory is supported by some of the earliest documentary descriptions of chess. Illuminated manuscripts showing chess games from as early as the thirteenth century also depict red and cream boards, although the pieces that are placed upon them are sometimes black and white, as illustrated, for example, in Alfonso X the Wise's celebrated Book of Games.

Book of Games

"Arabs Playing Chess," from the Book of Games (fol. 62v), by Alfonso X the Wise (1221–1284). Spain, 1283. Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial. Photo: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

The red pigment has long since disappeared from the Lewis Chessmen, presumably due to the photosensitive nature of a fugitive vegetable dye.

Madden enjoyed a socially elevated position and was a regular attendant at the Queen's balls. Due to his social connections, he was dubbed a knight of the Hanoverian Guelphic order by King William IV in 1833. This was at a precociously early stage in his career and ahead of many senior colleagues who might have expected to receive the same distinction. Madden's journals reveal the intense rivalry that characterized working life at the British Museum at this time.

He had been frequently outspoken in his criticism of his colleagues and adversaries—often reserving the most damning comments for his diary. In 1835, for example, when a Select Committee was set up by Parliament to examine the management of the Museum in the face of accusations of nepotism and elitism, the radical Member of Parliament Benjamin Hawes used his personal connection with a former employee of the library to gain information. His contact was John Millard, who had been dismissed from the Library in 1833 and was judged by Madden to be "totally incompetent for the task to which he had been appointed." In his diary Madden described Hawes as "a dirty pitiful blackguard – to quibble & lie and be insolent," using much more colorful language for the treacherous Millard. Madden's responses were motivated by his own political views, which were confirmedly and instinctively Tory. He summed up his political stance in a letter declining membership to the Marylebone Constitutional Union in 1867:

I have always avoided political parties because of my official position . . . but . . . I had little to be thankful for from either Whigs or Tories, and less from the Church. I detest democracy and mob rule.

Much of Madden's bitterest criticism was vented against Sir Anthony Panizzi, with whom he had been in a rivalry for seniority since at least 1837, when they had each been promoted to Assistant Keeper. Madden outmaneuvered Panizzi in securing superior Museum apartments for his family, but his victories were few. After a long struggle, he ultimately lost to Panizzi the custody of manuscripts from the library of Sir Thomas Grenville, which came to the museum in 1847. More galling still, in 1856, Panizzi was made Principal Librarian above Madden. From this point onward Madden communicated with Panizzi only through the agency of an assistant. He resigned from the British Library in 1866.

Madden's papers, including his diaries, were left to the Bodleian Library in Oxford upon his death in 1873 with the proviso that they should not be opened until 1920. A team of scholars drawn mainly from the British Library and the British Museum has formed recently under the name of the Madden Society to transcribe and publish the diaries.

Further Reading

Ackerman, Robert W., and Gretchen P. Sir Frederic Madden: A Biographical Sketch and Bibliography. Garland Publishing: New York and London, 1979

Harris, P. R. A History of the British Museum Library 1753–1973. British Library Board: 1998

Wilson, David M. The British Museum: A History. British Museum Press, 2002

Tag(s): Lewis
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About the Author

James Robinson is the curator of late medieval collections in the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, on view at The Cloisters November 15, 2011–April 22, 2012.