Sunday, November 4, 2007

Barleycorn sets

This article is an attempt of a logical classification of chess sets usually associated with the term 'Barleycorn'. It contains very little original research and is in main part a compilation of other people's work. However, as far as I know, no similar pieces of literature devoted to the Barleycorn design can be found online.

The author is grateful to Alan Dewey, Frank Camarratta, Jon Crumiller and other people who have provided the pictures or helped to improve this piece. Especially Alan's remarks helped to improve this article greatly.

'Barleycorn' is a buzzword widely used for a range of chess sets made in 19th century England for the most part. There are several subpatterns and gray areas where the appliance of the term can become a subject of heated discussion. Below we will examine several decorations, subpatterns and borderline cases.


The origin of the term

The Free Dictionary tells us:

bar·ley·corn (bär'l-kôrn)
n.
1. The grain of barley.
2. A unit of measure equal to the length of a grain of barley, or about 1/3 inch (0.85 centimeters).

The famous chess set design is said to have come from the shape of foliate decorations used to decorate the royal pieces. It is interesting to note that many sets considered Barleycorn have decorations resembling the leaves of barley or even some other plants. Examples will be presented below.


The Barleycorn Century

When where the Barleycorn sets produced?

Dermot Rochford:
"...I would classify this as an early 19th century Barleycorn, a transistion from the washington style. Note how similar the knight is to set 3's knight. [...] Barleycorn sets so named for the carving found on some of these sets, are an evolution of the Washington type sets and were very common throughout the 19th century even after the Staunton design was introduced."

Victor Keats ("The Illustrated Guide to World Chess Sets" page 127): "They [Barleycorn sets] [...] first appeared at the beginning of the century. This was due to the decline of trade with Napoleon's France when the supply of playing sets of Dieppe and other French sources decreased." Page 212 reads: "The only other surviving Jefferson set is of barleycorn design [...] sets such as this were made in England in the early 1800s..." And about a set of J. Q. Adams (page 213): "his chess set was [...] in the barleycorn style, made some time after 1825."

Frank Camarratta: from 1820 to 1845.

A. E. J. Mackett-Beeson ("Chessmen" page 22): from "early 19th century".

Frank Greygoose ("Chessmen" plates 69-70): from "early 19th century".

Jon Crumiller: "They were very popular in the early to mid 1800's."

Harry Golombek ("A History of Chess" page 164): A cartoon with Barleycorn-like pieces from
1832.

Golombek's page 178 contains an image of "A European barleycorn chess-set 1870-80" which
misses the foliate decoration.

Michael Mark ("British Chess Sets"): "[...] were made in bone and ivory and were used in Great Britain throughout almost the whole of the 19th century."

Gareth Williams ("Master Pieces" page 43): "[...] continued in production until World War I."

Alan Dewey: "True (with Barleycorn decorations) Barleycorn, would not have been made before about 1800, as the lathe technology was not sufficiently well enough established, before then (using Holtzapfels dates as typical, although they were by no means the only firm producing these ornamental machines). [...] ...we can be fairly confident in dating most Barleycorns to the period, 1820-1920."

There seems to exist a wide consensus that the ornamentally turned Barleycorn sets did not and could not appear before early 19th century. However, the question about the end of the Barleycorn era is more controversial. Different people offer dates from the mid-1800s to 1920.

A number of carved Barleycorn sets exist. They might have been made earlier than the ornamentally turned sets.

Barleycorn parts

Following name convention will be used to identify various parts of Barleycorn pieces. Base, stem, barrel and upper stem with finials usually unscrew.



Predecessors

I do not believe in evolution of designs in the strict sense of the term. I do not want to say that new patterns were made by designers who took some old chess and deliberately tried to improve it (although that was so in some cases). By 'evolution' I mean a gradual manifestation of wider design trends in various chess set patterns. There were hundreds or even thousands of different designs around in 18th and 19th century and although gradual changes in various design elements are obvious, care should be taken to avoid the construction too narrow 'lines' of evolution or simplistic statements like Barleycorns evolved from Washington pattern and that's it. That happens in animal kingdom but not in the world of design ideas and concepts.

A number of 18th century sets have design elements similar to Barleycorn sets. Just a few examples:


The set of George Washington (picture taken from the book of M. Liddell). The Washington pattern is named after this set.

Ivory chess set owned by James Cook, 1770. Similar Knights became a standard for Barleycorn sets early in the 19th century.
National Maritime Museum, London.


A late 18th century book depicting chessmen with massive but round barrels


A round set from the 19th century


Early Killarney set with large and ringed but not cylindrical barrels. Image scanned from Mike Darlow's "Turned Chessmen", Polumbaum Collection.

For an illustrated article about the evolution of British chess sets with many more examples, see Antique English Chess Sets by Dermot Rochford.


Decorations of the barrel

1) True Barleycorn decoration

Ivory King and Queen with grain-like decoration

The body of this type of sets is decorated with ornamental turning resembling barley grain. In rare cases, such decoration can be seen on Rooks, too.



A closeup of deeper ear-like decorations on a True Barleycorn King.

Another type of True Barleycorn decoration resembles a barley ear warped around the barrel of the piece. In my opinion, these designs match the name of the family best and should be considered classic.

Ears of modern 2-row barley and 6-row bere



Unusual case where ears point downwards

2) Barley leaf decoration


Major pieces with foliate decoration

Some people see barley leaves here. I do not want to argue.

Barley leaves

3) Rope decoration

This is a non-foliate decoration, usually seen on the edges of the barrel of royal pieces and sometimes on Rooks, too. In many cases, all rings on the barrel have been turned this way.


A closeup view of rope-decorated royal piece.


If the decoration runs around the center of the piece body then it is sometimes hard to tell if the carving should be called Rope or Barley Ear.


I think that this decoration depictures a fine-grained barley ear. Note how the finial of the King is decorated with general, neutral leaves.


But I am not so sure about this one. Very finely grained & not very well done barley ear or two ropes with opposite twists? Yes, it did sell for £1000 hammer price at auction but that's another story.

4) Acanthus decoration

Another plant which has been used for decorating chess sets is acanthus. The trouble with them is that acanthus leaves cannot be turned like ropes or leaves or ears which run around the piece.


The King is decorated with acanthus leaves. All pieces are richly decorated; we will get back to this.

Acanthus ornament has been used as decorative elements from the days of Ancient Greeks. I will provide a picture of modern fountain which closely resembles the chess pieces above.


A fountain with Acanthus ornament

5) Leafed decoration


Some people see the whole Barley plant here. I see just general, neutral leaves.

6) Jaques 10

The whole barrel is not ringed but covered with alternating rectangles resembling chessboard or ragged brick wall.


J. Jaques turning book page 4, left column, 4th figure from top. Picture taken from Darlow's "Turned Chessmen".

Actually it seems to me that this pattern is for ivory sets. This needs to be sorted out.

7) Plain sets


The majority of BC sets come without any decoration at all.


Stems and bases

Usually Barleycorn sets come with round or onion-shaped stems, threaded in the best sets. However, some exceptions exist.


A set with True Barleycorn decoration and ringed stems. The rings are repeated in every piece. Ringed stems are not particularily rare, although not common.

It is important to note that urn-like stems are characteristic to Washington pattern, NOT Barleycorn pattern.

The bases are usually plain. However, the edges of good set stems are often "cogged". The fanciest bases are called Van Dyke bases.

A Van Dyke base

English subpatterns


1) Cogged Crown




Kings: cogged crown finials and True Barleycorn or Plain ornamentation around barrel. In good sets, other sections have non-foliate ornamentation.
Queens: ball finials and True Barleycorn or Plain ornamentation. In good sets, other sections have non-foliate ornamentation.
Rooks: turreted towers. In good sets with flag finials and decorated ribbons around pieces.
Bishops: closed mitres, in good sets with non-foliate decoration.
Knights: horse heads, in good sets with non-foliate decoration.
Pawns: ball finials.

In good sets, all bases are cogged.

This is the classic and very common Barleycorn subpattern. Usually small to medium size sets (up to 11,4 cm). Made of bone.

2) Fountain Crown (Flower Crown)



Kings: Fountain Crown finials, True Barleycorn, Rope, Leaf or Plain decoration around barrel. In good sets, crowns with foliate decoration (Flower Crown) and other sections with non-foliate decoration.
Queens: tuft finials, True Barleycorn, Rope, Leaf or Plain decoration around barrel. In good sets, other sections with non-foliate decoration.
Rooks: turreted towers usually with flag finials, sometimes ball finials. In good sets with flag finials and decorated ribbons around pieces.
Bishops: closed mitres, in good sets with non-foliate decoration.
Knights: horse heads, in good sets with non-foliate decoration.
Pawns: ball finials.

In good sets, all bases are cogged.

This is the classic and very common Barleycorn subpattern for large size sets (up to 15,2 cm). Made of bone.

3) Stretched



Kings: Imperial Crown finials, Plain decoration, rarely downright ears.
Queens: tuft finials, Plain decoration, rarely downright ears.
Rooks: turreted towers usually with flag finials, sometimes with ball finials.
Bishops: very long round-topped open mitres.
Knights: horse heads.
Pawns: ball finials.

Another common pattern for larger sets (10-14 cm), easily recognizable for stretched Bishop finials. Usually without decoration. Made of bone.

4) Maltese Cross


Kings: Imperial Crown and Maltese cross finials, True Barleycorn, Leaved or Rope decoration around barrel. In the best sets, foliate decoration is repeated on the ball under the crown and other parts have non-foliate decoration.
Queens: ball or feather finials in good sets, True Barleycorn, Leaved or Rope decoration around barrel. In the best sets, foliate decoration is repeated on the ball under the crown and other parts have non-foliate decoration.
Rooks: turreted towers with cannon towers and flag finials, sometimes with decorative ribbons around the pieces.
Bishops: open mitres, sometimes with non-foliate decoration.
Knights: horse heads, sometimes with reigns.
Pawns: ball finials.

This is the pattern for high-end large (10-14 cm) bone sets. They are sometimes associated with the famous name of Charles Hastilow.

5) Acanthus


Kings: Imperial Crown and Maltese cross finials, usually Acanthus, sometimes other foliate decoration around barrel. Other parts have non-foliate decoration.
Queens: taft finials, usually Acanthus, sometimes other foliate decoration around barrel. Other parts have non-foliate decoration.
Rooks: turreted towers with cannon towers and flag finials, bricked bodies and decorative carvings on other parts.
Bishops: open mitres with non-foliate decoration.
Knights: well carved horse heads with spectacular manes.
Pawns: ball finials.

Van Dyke bases.

Another high-level pattern for larger bone sets, easily recognizable by Acanthus decoration and specific Knights.

6) Ivory



The Barleycorn world is generally made of bone. However, a certain number of ivory sets with similar foliate decorations exist. Ivory sets without foliate decorations are never called Barleycorn.

Ivory BC pieces have usually the following characteristics.

Kings: Imperial Crown and Maltese cross finials, True Barleycorn or Leaf decoration around the barrel. Other parts have non-foliate decoration.
Queens: ball, taft or feather finials, True Barleycorn or Leaf decoration around the barrel. Other parts have non-foliate decoration.
Rooks: turreted towers with stems and flag finials.
Bishops: mitres with non-foliate decoration.
Knights: horse heads, sometimes with reigns.
Pawns: ball finials.

Non-English subpatterns

1) Plain Nurenberg (Plain German)
Barleycorn design was used in the continental Europe as well. The design believed to have been originated from Germany has clearly different proportions than English sets. The round sectionsand Rooks look shorter. Another different feature is the sawed-out Knight which appears in many Continental designs, including Selenus. Rook Flag finials are not used.


Plain German (Nurenberg Barleycorn) chess set

The design varies greatly. It was also made in wood.

2) German Skirted Barleycorn


Kings: Spiked coronet finial, plain decoration around the barrel and "skirted" carvings on it's lower edge.
Queens: pointed finials, plain decoration around the barrel and "skirted" carvings on it's lower edge.
Rooks: turreted towers with ball finials.
Bishops: short mitres and urn-like stems.
Knights: horse heads and ringed stems.
Pawns: pointed finials and urn-like stems.

This is a quite well established pattern and both urn-like and ringed stems are correct for this sort of a set. They were produced in early 19th century and do not need an ornamental lathe to make.

3) Pierced


Kings: Imperial crown and Maltese cross finials, pierced barrel.
Queens: Imperial crown finials, pierced barrel.
Rooks: turreted towers with Maltese cross finials.
Bishops: short and flat-ended mitres.
Knights: sawed-out horse heads.
Pawns: pointed finials.

All pieces with plain bases and urn-like stems.

Another well-established German pattern. Does not need an ornamental lathe as well.

4) Little Faces


Kings: Royal face finials, Leaf decorations around barrel, non-foliate carvings around other parts.
Queens: Royal face finials, Leaf decorations around barrel, non-foliate carvings around other parts.
Rooks: turreted towers with cannon tower and halfmoon finials.
Bishops: flower finials with non-foliate decorations around other parts.
Knights: well-carved horse heads with non-foliate decorations around other parts.
Pawns: pointed finials.

A Barleycorn version of German "Little faces" high-end design, also used with other patterns.

Conclusion

'Barleycorn' term has been applied to a variety of chess sets and has lost it's original meaning long ago. The royal pieces are decorated with ears, barley leaves, acanthus leaves, general leaves, rope twist, ragged bricks or just ringed. German sets might be even pierced. I am sure that there are some rare decorations left out from the list provided above.

There seems to exist a wide consensus that chess sets should be labeled Barleycorn by the general shape of the pieces, not by some particular way to decorate a ribbon around barrel of some royal piece.

The barrel should be considerably stouter than the neck and finials. Slim ringed sets as the following example are often listed as 'Barleycorn' by auction houses. I think that is not right because no slim bone sets with any foliate decoration exist (there are some with Rope decoration, though). If there were slim sets with foliate decorations, then in my opinion only these should be called 'Barleycorn' as in the case of ivory sets.


Slim English playing set. Evolved from Captain Cook pattern?

I think that following characteristics should be common to and required from the whole family:
1) existence of base, stem, barrel, upper stem and finials in Royal pieces;
2) massive cylindrical barrels, stouter than finials, about as wide as bases;
3) stout Rooks without stems in bone sets;
4) foliate decoration around barrels of ivory royal pieces.

4 comments:

rulix batistil said...

Do you know where to buy these chess sets?

Blog Owner said...

Mostly eBay. I have one to spare, too. Please leave your e-mail address.

Evegate said...

A few years ago I bought a very old set of chess pieces at a local antiques auction in Canterbury (England). I think the pattern is some kind of barleycorn, but not like any of these. I put it in my staffroom, to play at lunchtimes.
To my utter horror, either an employee or the cleaning lady has thrown away the old box in which I kept the four flags which insert into the tops of the rooks. Do you have any knowledge of sources of spares?

Josh Ryan said...

Thank you for your excellent, logical approach to naming this design. I hope you do not mind if I reference your article in my own website regarding barley corn sets. I believe the "rope twist" designation can be simplified by referring to "decorated barley corn" and "plain barley corn". The features of the design are very clear and the presence of leaves or not seems less significant than the other features of the design.