Bookplates with chess motifs

The Queen

The story in Lewis Carroll’s book "Through the Looking Glass" is structured as a game of chess and each move represents important events in the book: White Pawn (Alice) plays and wins in eleven moves. In the beginning of the game Alice meets the Red Queen in a landscape surrounded by trees and towers. The scene is illustrated by the Danish advertising designer Per Christensen for Erik Skovenborg, whose name means castle in the wood.

Bookplates with chess-motifs


The article Chess Bookplates was printed in
Bookplate International 1999, vol. 6, No. 2
page 79-113
. The text of the article is printed
below, however, due to lack of space the 46
chess bookplates that illustrate the article are
not shown here.
Interested chess players may by a copy of the
offprint (10 USD incl. postage) - just send a
mail to

Chess is an old game - much older than chess-books and the bookplates that adorn many of them. Chess evolved from a two-player game, shatranj, popular in India after AD 600. From India shatranj made its way to Europe by way of Persia. An Indian legation is said to have given King Chosroës I (532-578) a chessboard and chessmen as a present. It coupled the present with one condition however, namely that Persia could only then free itself from its obligation to pay tribute if it could work out the proper positioning of the pieces and their way of moving. Should Persia achieve this, then India was prepared to pay tribute herself, since it esteemed wisdom more than any other earthly possession. Persia fulfilled the appointed task. Not only did it make chess exceedingly popular, it also played a decisive part in refining the rules of the game to such a degree that when the Arabs conquered the Persian Empire in 651 they also adopted the Persian way of playing chess. The oldest recorded game, found in a 10th-century manuscript, was played between a Baghdad historian and a pupil. The Russian artist Wladimir Chekarjkov has transformed the King to a Grand Vizier in his design for Alexander Sazonov, a well-known russian bookplate collector with about 50 personal chess-exlibris (Fig. 1).

In Europe chess really became the Game of Kings. It was primarily noblemen and knights who indulged in the game, and it was part of a good education to play chess well. It was therefore logical that it soon belonged to the Seven Arts which a knight had to master. The motif of Dutch bibliophile and collector of chess-problems Dr. Meindert Niemeijer’s bookplate (Fig. 2) shows a miniature from “Codice di Manesse” (Bibliotecha Universitaria Heidelberg), where the lady is moving a Rook while her opponent, Otto IV of Brandenburg (1182-1218), contemplates the position of his Knight.

The game was carried to England by the Vikings, who are also believed responsible for the most famous collection of chessmen, 78 walrus-ivory pieces of various sets that were found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in 1831 and date from the 11th or 12th century. Leslie Benenson illustrate the famous story from medieval England - “The floating chessboard” - in her woodcut for the Dutch collector Wim K. de Bruijn. One day in Camelot, when the legendary king Arthur was sitting at the round table with his knights, a chessboard came floating through the door and settled before the king (Fig. 3). He started to play chess, however, when his invisible opponent stood to loose the game the chessboard floated away. One of King Arthur’s brave knights, Sir Gawaine, followed the floating board in a quest to find out who was the invisible chess player (Fig. 4).

The chessboard

One of the myths about the origin of chess tells the story of King Sjeram of India. He was not a good king and one of the Court nobles created a game in order to send a message to the king. The game should demonstrate that the king was of no avail without his officers and his people. King Sjeram took in the meaning, and he was so pleased with the new game that he promised the inventive genius to gratify his greatest wish. The wise man turned out to be very modest. He only asked for some wheat from the royal storerooms: one grain of wheat on the first square of the chessboard, two times one = two grains on the second square, two times two = four grains on the third square, two times four = eight grains on the fourth square etc. on the 64 squares of the board. The king agreed thinking that he was let off cheaply, but the amount of wheat for the reward proved impossible to deliver: 922.337.203.685 metric tons. To amass that huge quantity you would have to put the whole world under wheat eight times and harvest the same number of crops! The power of the innocently looking 64 squares is illustrated by André Vlaanderen in his bookplate for the English collector Reginald G. E. Stainforth (Fig. 5).

The number 8, the mathematical symbol for infinity, was surely not chosen by chance as the basis for the game. 8 x 8 squares make up the chessboard; the army is composed of 8 officers and 8 foot-soldiers. The King and the Knight have the choice of moving to 8 different squares. The magic of the chessboard is depicted by the Russian artist Serik Kulmeschkenov in his etching for the author (Fig. 6).

Playing-boards, which had monochromatic squares in the Muslim world, began to have alternating black-and-white, or red-and-white, squares by AD 1000 and were often made of fine wood or marble. Peter I the Great of Russia had special campaign boards made of soft leather that he carried during military efforts. The chessboard of Börje Börjesson’s bookplate ranks among the luxury boards with black and gold squares as the background to some stylish chessmen. The elegant set was designed by the Swedish artist Arthur Sjögren in 1923 (Fig. 7).

By convention, the board is so placed that each player has a light-coloured square at his right-hand corner. The files, the lines of squares running vertically up and down, are labeled a through h beginning with the file at White’s left hand. The ranks, the lines of squares running horizontally to right and left, are numbered from 1 through 8 beginning with the rank closest to White. There are eight squares in each rank and file. Using the letter and number of each square - coordinate notation - it is possible to record a chess game. Here is an example: a recording of the shortest possible game of chess, known as the Fool’s mate.
  1. g2-g4 e7-e5
  2. f2-f4 Dd8-h4 checkmate!
No Fool’s mate but a discovered check is threatening the black King in Willy Kornher’s design for L. C. Schmidt (Fig. 8).

The battlefield

The board represents a battlefield in which two armies fight to capture each other’s King. The worn-out troops in Wim de Bruijn’s bookplate fight in a smoking, desolate landscape that looks like the battlefields of World War I. The military operation was etched by the Chech artist Katerina Slavikova (Fig. 9).

Most chess-players win some games and loose some. That is also true for the Grand Masters even if they mostly win more battles than they loose. So did Napoleon, but “Every man meets his Waterloo at last.” In Bueno de Mesquita’s scraperboard-design for Ivan Matteo Lombardo the black Knight is in charge of the execution of the white King, Napoleon, who incidentally found chess without comparison, an imperial game (Fig. 10).

The chessmen

The simple design of the pieces before AD 600 gradually led to figurative sets depicting animals, warriors, and noblemen. Muslim sets of the 9th-12th centuries were often made of carved stove following the Islamic prohibition of images of living creatures. Stylized sets, often adorned with precious stones, resturned to fashion as the game spread to Europe and Russia. The standard for modern sets was established about 1835 with a simple design by an Englishman, Nathanial Cook. The design was endorsed by Howard Staunton, then the world’s best player, and the set subsequently became known as the Staunton pattern. Only sets based on the Staunton design are allowed in international competition today. The linocut by the German artist Georg M. Bauernfeind for his fellow-countryman Friedrich Wolfenter shows the simple design that helps to direct the players’ attention to the game itself (Fig. 11).

The King

The King can move one square in any direction. That does not sound like the most powerful officer in the army, however the King is the most important piece. When his Majesty is caught, the battle is lost. The Crimean artist V. Mitsuk has illustrated the scene of surrender in his bookplate for Alexander Sazonov: the victorious white King accept the crown of the defeated black King (Fig. 12).

A golden King in the Staunton design was the Dutch artist Johanna Bieruma-Oosting’s suggestion for her fellow-countryman P. L. J. Rassers’ bookplate (Fig. 13). In the classical chess openings as well as in the middle game the King is playing a not very active part as observer from a safe distance. “No need to risk his life in the opening encounters,” the Finnish chessplayer and philosophical Doctor Pentti Jänkälä has decided. So the artist Mirjam Kinos has placed the white King on his throne with his sword in the sheath (Fig. 14).

The Queen

In shatranj, the original Indian game, a new piece, a “firzan” (counselor), was placed next to the King. The counselor was limited to moving one square diagonally at a time. In medieval times the piece grew in size when its powers expanded, and the piece changed from a male counselor to the King’s female consort. The Queen adorning the bookplate of the great Danish collector Kristen Rasmussen is unmistakable feminine. She was undressed by the Danish artist H. C. Bärenholdt (Fig. 15).

The Queen is the star of the game. Not only is she the most powerful of all pieces, her range of movement is star-shaped, in any one direction at a time, so far as the squares in that line are unoccupied. The Queen combines the powers of both Rook and Bishop. Evaluating a Pawn as a unit of one, the Queen is the equivalent of nine in the table of the relative value of chessmen. She deserves her prominent position in E. Zierold’s plastic engraving for the German collector Paul G. Becker (Fig. 16).

It is tempting to use the powerful Queen to charge the footsoldiers of the enemy right away. The plastic engraving by the Israeli artist Leonid Kuris for V. Teplitskogo shows a Queen on pawn-looting (Fig. 17). However, the Queen she should not be put to risk too early in the game. An early Queen sortie is apt to recoil: the Queen will serve as a target, be attacked and be compelled to retreat. The time expended in advancing and retreating will be used by the adversary to bolster his developmenmt. The Queen should not join the fray until the position has crystallized. Then she will be a decisive asset in the hunt for the enemy King as depicted in the Hungarian artist Laszlo Kekesi’s woodcut for his fellow countryman Gulyas Mihaly (Fig. 18).

The story in Lewis Carroll’s book “Through the Looking Glass” is structured as a game of chess and each move represents important events in the book: White Pawn (Alice) plays and wins in eleven moves. In the beginning of the game Alice meets the Red Queen in a landscape surrounded by trees and towers. The scene is illustrated by the Danish advertising designer Per Christensen for the author of this article, whose name means castle in the wood (Fig. 19).

The Rook

Depiction of the Rook varied considerably during times and places. In Russia it was usually represented as a sailing ship until the 20th century. Elsewhere it was a warrior i a chariot or a castle turret. The “warrior in a chariot” type of Rook looks marvelous in Serik Kulmeschkenov’s woodcut for the great Russian collector Alexander Sazonov (Fig. 20).

The woodcut by the Hungarian artist Havas depicts the Rook as a castle turret in a city with busy people (Fig. 21). The Rooks like to be positioned on open files, where its massive frame and long-ranging cannon may dominate the enemy troops. The interesting bookplate is owned by the Hungarian collector Pécsi Krasznay Sakkör.

The strong Castle is the equivalent of five Pawns, even so it can be used as an elegant symbol in heraldry as shown by the Dutch artist Mia Pot van Regteren Altena in her wood-engraving for the Dutch collector A. G. Stolp Fig. 22). In this way the exceptionally beautiful topographic bookplate is turned into a chess-bookplate.

The Bishop

The Bishop has been known by different names - “Fool” in French, “Elephant” in Russin, for example - and was not universally recognized by a distinctive mitre until the 19th century. The modest appearance of the piece has appealed to neither bookplate-artists nor bookplate-collectors.
Consequently is it is hard to find a nice Bishop in even a large collection of chess-exlibris. However, the typographical bookplate of the German collector Norbert Richter presents all six types of chessmen in a line: King, Bishop, Rook, Knight, Queen and a Pawn upside-down (Fig. 23). The motif is composed by Friedrich Wolfenter using examples of type from a normal typewriter (not computer).

The Bishop is the equivalent of fully three Pawn units thanks to its ability to strike from a distance along diagonals, that is, slant-wise, in any one direction at a time, and so far as the squares are unoccupied. From one corner the Bishop may aim straight at the enemy King in the opposite corner; a dangerous situation as shown in the fine wood-engraving by the French artist Ernest Huber (Fig. 24). Chess is the art of human reason, but according to the motto of Dr. E. Olivier - Patientia et Ingenio - a little patience is needed as well.

The Knight

The Knight is a funny piece with a funny way of moving: in the shape of an L or an inverted L, one square forward or backward and two squares to the left or right; or two squares forward or backward and one square to the left or right. The Knight’s move is actually a leap to the nearest non-adjacent square of opposite colour. The Knight alone can leap over other chessmen, friendly or enemy, and it is the only piece which can move before Pawns at the start of the game. The Knight, the equivalent of three pawns, is always ready to jump and to fight as the beautiful horse in Hungarian artist Jenö Sebök's ipse fecit (Fig. 25).

In contrast to the Bishop, the Knight has never lacked attentiveness from the bookplate artists. Any collection of chess-exlibris should have plenty af Knights among which exquisite works of art like the etching of the Austrian artist Victor Schapiel for Jürgen Auer may be found (Fig. 26).

The sly Knight is a difficult opponent in the battle of the chessboard as many inexperienced chess-players have found to their cost. During the battle of Troy the Achaen forces led by Epeius constructed the Trojan horse, a huge, hollow wooden horse, to gain entrance into Troy. The Achaeans, pretending to desert the war, sailed to the nearby island of Tenedos, leaving behind Sinon, who persuaded the Trojans that the horse was an offering to Athena that would make Troy impregnable. Despite the warnings of Cassandra and Laokoon, the horse was taken inside. That night warriors emerged from it and opened the city's gates to the returned Achaen army. The Trojan horse engraved in plastic by Leonid Kuris should remind warriors – as well as chessplayers like Lothar Schmid – never to trust the enemy (Fig. 27).

One of the reasons for the dominationg position of the Knight in chess-exlibris is its value as a symbol of chess. Like the card with club, diamond, heart and spade shows the world that Seppo Asikainen like to play cards, the Knight in the centre tells us that the Finnish bookplate collector is also a chess-player (Fig. 28). The Finnish artist Jorma Piironen has designed the elegant motif.

Chess is a game of black-and-white. In the Middle ages the chessboard stood for the world, its white squares symbolizing life and the quality of mercy, its black squares death and guilt. The black&white character of the game is exactly what makes chessboard and chessmen such excellent motifs for the black-and-white graphic art. An example of excellent use of the contrasting colours is the fine bookplate for W. F. Denneborg (Fig. 29).

The Pawn

From the start of the game in India the Pawns have always been the infantry of the army. In shatranj the humble Pawn could only move one square at a time, however, by 1300 the foot soldier had acquired the ability to move two squares on its first turn. The rule of en passant capture did not win acceptance until the 18th century. The role of the Pawn as infantryman is illustrated in the bookplate of Spanish collector F. Gimenéz Monmany (Fig. 30).

Between players of approximately equal strength a game is likely to reach an ending. And it is in the ending that the game is won, lost or drawn. In the beginning there are thirty-two units on the chessboard. The opening is an initial development of the forces. The middle game is the complex art of chess that covers about a score of strategic motifs and nearly as many tactical ones. The officers bear the brunt of the battle. In the scientific calculation of the end game the leading parts of the drama are taken by the Pawns and the King as shown in Serik Kulmeschkenov’s wood-engraving for the Russian collector N. Kulikov (Fig. 31).

With each advance toward the eighth rank, the Pawn looms as a greater menace, for the eighth rank usually means the conversion from pawn to Queen; and there is no greater power on the chessboard than the Queen. The value of pawn promotion added a dynamic element to chess. In Serik Kulmeschkenov’s imaginative design for the Polish collector Jerzy Gizycki a new-born officer is breaking through the egg-shell to take part in the decisive battle (Fig. 32).

The time element

The rise of competitive chess with the London tournament of 1851 posed a question of fairness: should a player be allowed to take enormous amounts of time? As much as two hours and 20 minutes was spent by one player over a single move at the London tournament. That would give a spider ample time to finish its eloborate web as depicted by Rajmund Lewandowsky in his humerous drawing for the wellknown German specialist in chess-exlibris Gerd Mayer (Fig. 33).

Staunton, the most influential player of the first half of the 19th century, was severely critical of players who took “hours over moves where minutes might suffice.” He suggested limiting the amount of time allotted for each move to be a specified number of minutes. The principle, adopted for most competitons from 1861 on, allow each player a bank of time in which to play a predetermined number of moves, such as two hours for 30 moves, playing some moves quickly and taking as much as an hour or more on others. In 1861 the first time limits, using sand glasses, were emplyed in a match, however, the sandglasses proved clumsy and were replaced by a pair of mechanical clocks. The linocut by Aadu Tammsaar for the Danish collector Bernt B. Jensen shows one of the modern clocks consisting of two parallel timers, each with a small button above it for a player to press after completing a move (Fig. 34). This stops the player’s time and starts the opponent’s. The simplified device makes it possible for a player to survive severe time trouble, situations in which it may be necessary to make 20 or 30 moves with less than a minute of allotted time remaining. Persius, a 1st A.D. century Roman poet, used the expression “Fugit hora” (time flies) to tell us that it’s later than we think. Many chess-players have learnt that to their cost and have resorted to “ora” - a prayer that they may get to make their next move before the flag falls down.

The mate

The Arabs not only adopted the Persian rules of chess but also the Persian names for the pieces. Shah, the Persian name for King, took on a changed meaning in the course of the centuries, finally becoming synonymous with the deadly threat of capturing the King. When a player attacks the enemy King, it is customary to say “check” in sociable games. In any such event the King must get out of check on its player’s next turn. There are three ways to do so: 1. capture the attacking man; 2. interpose a friendly man on the line of fire of the attacker; and 3. move the King out of that line of fire. If none of these resources works, the attacked King is “checkmated”, and the game is over.
That is the sad position of the white King in Jar. Mrazek’s bookplate engraved in wood by the Chech artist Ant. Moravek (Fig. 35).

The chess-players

Tolstoi loved a game of chess; he recovered his strength while the game forced him to focus on the moves of the chessmen. “Ludo - ergo sum” - I play, therefore I am is the motto of E.N. The enthusiastic player is cut in wood by Leonid Kuris (Fig. 36).

Some games are more serious than others. Vitalis Jakstas from Lithuania has depicted a scene where a young woman play a game of chess with Death while the sands are running out (Fig. 37). Even if that is a game no mortal is able to win we can always hope to gain some time by playing well. R. Jurelionis is the happy owner of the intriguing bookplate, an etching in brown and red colours.

Jens Enevoldsen was a well-known Danish Chess-champion, a great blindfold player with an excellent memory and a fine analytic mind. The Danish artist Leo Petersen drew a portrait of Enevoldsen at the chessboard in a state of deep concentration; you can almost see his brain working (Fig. 38).

The famous Grand Master Aaron Nimzowitsch hated tobacco and spirits and during tournaments he always tried to have smoking prohibited. During the tournament in New York 1927 Nimzowitsch was going to meet Dr. M. Vidmar, a passionate smoker. With assistance from tournament leader Mr. Maroczy Nimzowitsch got Dr. Vidmars promise not to smoke during the game. During the fight Dr. Vidmar missed his tobacco, but he stood by his promise. Unconsciously, however, he fiddled with his pipe, tobacco pouch, cigars and matches on the table. Suddenly Nimzovitsch jumped to his feet and called for the tournament leader:
“Mr. Maroczy, Dr. Vidmar promised not to smoke, didn’t he?”
Maroczy looked with astonishment from Nimzowitsch to the Yugoslav professor:
“Yes, but Dr. Vidmar is not smoking.”
Nimzovitz regained his composure and with a smile he said:
“No, but he is threatening to smoke, and as an old chessplayer you must know, Maroczy, that a suspended threat is worse than a threat that is put into execution at once!”
We do not know whether the great Nimzowitz had a bookplate, but Rajmund Lewandowski’s drawing for Gerd Meyer’s exlibris illustrates the situation very well (Fig. 39).

Dr. Machielis Euwe was chess World Champion from 1935-1937. He took a doctor’s degree in mathematics in 1926 and then he became head of a high school in Amsterdam. Max Euwe was a scientific chessplayer; he wanted to search for the core of chess systems. The Dutch Grand Master liked to play the game through a series of progressive calculations and deductions in order to assemble the game to an integrated row of experiments, where the last move proved the theory that had been the guiding principle all along. Max Euwe’s mathematical talent for positionel play and his determination to win brought him many victories. So the Dutch artist Jeanne Bieruma Oosting has put a sprig of laurel in the mouth of the professor’s clever Knight (Fig. 40).

Chess as recreation

Most chess-players are not champions, neither do they play chess for a living; they play chess for recreation. With the words of G. Marco (Vienna 1908): “Maintained with care chess is of great value. It helps to keep the sad hours away that so often haunt the ailing humans. It distracts the self-pity that is so easily provoked by the many infirmities of mankind. The delight of combination raise your spirits while the ability to look into the future boosts your self-esteem. It produces mental vitamins in a way that no other hobby is capable of. So chess is a consolation; it fortifies and encourages and consequently it prolongs life.” The many infirmities of mankind are also the business of Dr. Pentti Pentola, doctor of medicine and professor of pharmacology. The professor is from Ostrobothnia, the most spread-out and flat region in Finland, so the artist Pentti Kaskipuro has placed the professors chessmen together with the doctor’s medicine tablets in the same area (Fig. 41).

Marco’s kind words about chess could also have been said about music. The Knight in István Molnár’s etching for the Erkel Muzeum has grown wings to be a symbol of Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology, a symbol of poetic inspiration (Fig. 42). Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) was a well-known Hungarian composer, who composed the melody of the Hungarian national anthem and several operas. He was also a great and passionate chess-player.

The Belgian artist André Gastmans has created a chess-study in black-and-white inhabited by a royal couple from the realm of the sea. The graving tool in the hand of His Majesty indicates that chess-lover Isaïas Pires Peixoto is a renowned Portuguese engraver (Fig. 43).

The chess-books

The merit of having first introduced a great new tradition of chess literature is attributed to Alphonso the Wise, tenth King of Castile and Leon (1252-1284). Under the aegis of this ruler there originated alongside a multitude of legal and historical works, a tractate on chess: the magnificently illustrated codex “Libros de Acedrex”. The tractate praises the value of games and playing in general and then the merits of that most distinguished game of chess in particular. A section on the rules of the game then follows and this leads on to the main body of the work: 103 chess problems and the solutions to them. The motif of the Catalan Rafael Masó Subirana’s bookplate, a line block by Estiate, pay homage to Spanish chess-books (Fig. 44).

First and foremost chess-books are necessary to teach young players the rules of the game. Every newcomer to chess wishes to be a general - to direct his forces and engage in strategy and tactics even before he has the faintest notion of what it is all about. “That won’t do,” the King in Leonid Kuris’ woodcut warns the little pawn, “you have to learn the rules of the game first!” (Fig. 45). The humerous exlibris belongs to the Polish collector Tadeusz T. Gudzowski.

Many chessplayers would like to bring plenty of chess-books to the next chess-tournament. However, that is not very practical as Rein Kontus has found out (Fig. 46). The well-informed player is drawn by the Estonian artist H. Hiibus. It is much easier to get help from your chess-books when you play correspondance chess. You play at home with an opponent from another city or another country, you receive the enemy moves by post send your own moves back by post. The Polish correspondance-chess player Andrezej Kruszewski has put his King in an envelope, ready to depart for its next move in the distant battle (Fig. 47). Tadeusz Szumarski has engraved the unusual scene in wood.

Grand collectors

The Belgian collector of chess-exlibris Karel Falleyn is always ready to play a game of chess as depicted in his bookplate by his fellow-countryman Peter Lagast (Fig. 48). However, he has also published two catalogues on exlibris and circumstance graphic with chess motifs. In catalogue I (1992) 815 bookplates are listed with illustrations and a numbered alphabetic list of owners with nationality, date, technique, original measures etc. The catalogue also brings an alphabetic list of artists and a list of literature about chess-bookplates. Catalogue II (1996) brings the list of chess-exlibris up to 1205 according to the same system as in catalogue I. The two catalogues should be a great help for any serious collector of bookplates with chess-motifs in need of information about a particular chess-bookplate.

The famous Polish collector Jerzy Gizycki has been interested in chess and chess-related art since the first post-war years. 1967 he published a book about chess: “Schach zu allen Zeiten”, and since then he has published several booklets and catalogues about bookplates with chess-motifs. Jerzy Gizycki has also written, but not yet published, an essay on the history of chees-exlibris with more than 100 illustrations. The result of his efforts in the field of bookplate-exchange is a collection of more than 1000 exlibris with chess-motifs. His first personal chess-exlibris was designed 1975 by his son Marcin; since then more than 40 artists from Poland and other countries has created around 100 bookplates for the enthusiastic Polish collector; exchange of bookplates is only successful if you yourself can put good material on the table. Jerzy Gizycki has lived a long life in the world of chess concentrating on the art, culture and history of chess. He has always been ahead of the field as the galloping Knight in one of his many fine bookplates (Fig. 49), a wood-engraving by the artist Alexandr Miklowda.

Erik Skovenborg Home Page <>