Details & Cataloguing

Modern & Post-War British Art


William Roberts, R.A.
1895 - 1980
oil on canvas
101.5 by 92cm.; 40 by 36¼in.
Executed circa 1929-30.
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Acquired by the Contemporary Art Society in 1932, and gifted to the present owners in 1940


London, Cooling Galleries, The London Artist's Association, Recent Paintings and Drawings by William Roberts, October - November 1931, cat. no.13, illustrated;
Venice, XVIII Biennial International Art Exhibition, 28th April - Autumn 1932, cat. no.88, illustrated;
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Autumn Exhibition, 1933;
New Zealand and Australia, Empire Art Loan Collections Society,  Loan Collection of Contemporary British Art, 1934-1935, cat. no.189, illustrated;
London, Tate Gallery, Loan Collection of Paintings, Drawings and Engravings by Contemporary British Artists Recently Exhibited in New Zealand and Australia under the Auspices of the Empire Art Loan Collections Society, 17th - 31st October 1935, cat. no.189, illustrated;
London, Whitechapel Gallery, Contemporary Art Society Collection, 10th June - 17th July 1937;
British Council, Contemporary British Art: Tour of Northern Capitals, 1939, cat. no.91;
London, Leicester Galleries, Selected Works Lent by the Contemporary Art Society, October - November 1939, cat. no.90;
London, Tate Gallery, William Roberts ARA Retrospective Exhibition, 20th November - 19th December 1965, cat. no.41, illustrated in the catalogue and on the exhibition poster, with tour to Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne and Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester;
Ohio, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, British Art 1890-1928, 1971, cat. no.84, illustrated fig.99.


The Times, 30th October 1931;
William Roberts, Paintings 1917-1958, The Favil Press, London, 1960, illustrated p.39;
Richard Shone, The Century of Change: British Painting since 1900, Phaidon, Oxford, 1977, illustrated pl.79.

Catalogue Note

'The chess-board is the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance.' (Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), A Liberal Education, Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (1870).

To Roberts, every situation must have seemed to teem with possibilities. People in the street, a park, a yard, or a café, everywhere there were ideas for subjects, and his ability to fix the details he observed in his daily life into his painted compositions must have been the envy of many of his contemporaries. Nuances abound in his imagery, and if one takes the time to look closely at his work, his incredible capacity for using complex compositional frameworks as a platform to express the most varied range of characters, moods and relationships in the people who populate his paintings is quite remarkable.

In The Chess Players, we find ourselves witness to just such a moment. In the corner of a room, a chess game is underway. The players are reaching the final stages, and the tension has drawn in the observers who wait, with us, to see the outcome. The board sits at the heart of the composition, the taken pieces littering the table top. Facing us is the man playing black, idly dangling his opponent's just-captured queen from his hand, a taunting gesture towards his foe. Roberts has placed us almost in the underdog's camp, looking at the game just over the shoulder of the man in the foreground, turning the board on a slight angle to make sure we can read the critical position in the game straight away. Not for nothing is our player looking lost, his hand rubbing the back of his neck as he desperately seeks a way out of a position that seems to have only one outcome. As we look back across the board, we see how Roberts has used everything at his disposal to stress the mood of his central character. His eyes are fixed on his rival, waiting to deliver the coup de grace. He rests his chin on one hand, the curled fingers covering his mouth, perhaps to hide a cruel smile. His body position is perfectly mirrored by the woman who stands at his side, leaning on the back of a chair, absorbed in the drama of the game. Her fingers grip the chair back, and together with the hand of her player, take on the air of some creature about to strike its prey. Another man completes the watching figures, like the woman, placed to suggest support for the dominant player. His glance is not even at the board, but looks across the two people at his side, their intense absorption in the game drawing his attention. Only one person remains unmoved, the woman who dozes in a chair in the foreground, the book she was reading flopped open on her lap.

Roberts' ability to imbue this scene with such palpable drama and excitement was not without a base of fact. John Roberts remembered his father as 'a dogged player', William's games with his friend Dr Paul de Zoysa going on late into the night.

This strength in Roberts' paintings was also noticed by contemporary observers when The Chess Players was first exhibited. Included in the 1931 London Artist's Association exhibition, the critic of The Times noted, 'Good composer as he is, Mr. Roberts can also hold a picture together by the sheer force of its emotion as indicated by attitude and facial expression - the moment of tension in "The Chess Players," for example' (The Times, 30 Oct. 1931). Such elements are very much a part of Roberts' work at the time, and the paintings of the late 1920s and early 1930s are frequently filled with intense activity, heightened by the superb observational and compositional facility that the artist brings to them. Whilst from his earliest years, Roberts had explored the expressive potential of complicated multi-figure compositions, it is during the 1920s that his acute observation of human nature and manners really marks these paintings as truly remarkable. The complexity and variety leaps out of them at first glance, but as one looks longer then the power of these images begins to build, bringing the figures to life such that we can easily imagine how they might sound, move or behave. Like his contemporary Stanley Spencer, Roberts created not just figures but characters that have lives beyond the moment he has captured on the canvas. If one looks at paintings such as Bank Holiday in the Park of 1923 (fig.1, Private Collection), Discussion in a Café of 1929 (fig.2, Private Collection) or Sun Bathing of 1936 (Private Collection), it is clear to see how consistently Roberts achieves this.

We are grateful for David Cleall for his kind assistance in cataloguing the present work.

Modern & Post-War British Art