PROPERTY OF THE TRUSTEES OF THE SECOND BARON HESKETH'S WILL TRUST
This superb amber games board dates from the golden age of amber production in Königsberg, the first half of the 17th century. The virtuoso classicizing reliefs, carved from white amber and placed under translucent red amber, are typical of the finest Königsberg work from the period. The arrangement of the board, with large allegorical relief scenes, single female personifications, all’antica portrait heads and busts of figures in contemporary dress, together with the use of silver and painted metal foil, place the present games board within the category of the finest amber objects to survive from the period, and indicate that it is the first such board created by the leading practitioner of the day, Georg Schreiber, the celebrated ‘master of royal chess-sets’ (St Petersburg, op. cit. p. 15).
The present games board finds its closest comparison in the only known board to be signed and dated by Schreiber, which was sold in these rooms on 12th April 1990, lot 199; an inscription on the board proudly proclaims: GEORGIUS SCRIBA BORUSUS CIVIS ET INCOLA REGIOMONTI BORUSSORUM HOC FECIT 1616 (Georg Schreiber, Prussian citizen and inhabitant of Königsberg of the Prussians made this in 1616). The similarities to the present, earlier, board are conceptual, stylistic and technical. Significantly, as in the present piece, the signed example incorporates a Nine Men’s Morris board to the exterior, which is centred on a white amber relief of a heroic Roman youth who demonstrated courage and self-sacrifice, Marcus Curtius. Like Mucius Scaevola (on the present board), who thrust his hand into the flames of his enemy’s fire to save Rome, Curtius made a personal sacrifice for his city, throwing himself into a chasm as an offering to Hades, who had demanded Rome’s most precious possessions: arms and courage. Mucius Scaevola and Marcus Curtius, as the ultimate representatives of virtus (the Roman virtue of courage and excellence), were seen in antiquity as ideal models for Roman youths; they were resurrected as exemplars of masculine virtue in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Flanking the central relief roundel on both boxes are four inscribed panels (right, left, above and below), which record German proverbs. Appearing on both the present box and the signed example is the line: Zu Gott Allein Die Hoffnung Mein (My only hope is in God).
The comparison between the two games boards extends to the arrangement of the pictorial scenes across the remaining interior and exterior boards. In both boxes, the Bar running through each half of the Backgammon board is articulated by three large reliefs bearing scenes from Classical mythology; slightly smaller allegorical scenes are arranged around the border. To the exterior can be found a chessboard, with squares depicting soldiers in contemporary costume interspersed with panels of cloudy amber on the signed board, and, on the present example, busts of figures in contemporary dress; significantly, on both, roundels with busts of wreathed Emperors and other classical figures, flank the chess and Nine Men’s Morris boards. Note the similarity between the figures, with the ribbons from their wreaths flowing behind their heads. Similar busts appear on other works by Schreiber, including on the side panels of a signed casket in the Klassik-Stiftung Weimar im Schlossmuseum, Weimar (Laue, op. cit. pp. 10, 18, figs. 1, 15).
The virtuoso techniques used by Schreiber in his signed games board are found on the present, earlier, box. As in the later example, the reliefs with allegorical scenes are carved from white amber and placed under panels of translucent orange amber, which function as panes of glass. In both boxes, a number of the panels are lined with metal foil (probably gold or silver) to the reverse, which has been painted, in a manner reminiscent of verre eglomisé, creating a jewel-like effect; in the present games board, such panels include the inscription plaques and the points on the backgammon board. Note also the superb painted vignettes with birds surrounded by leaves and vines, which, in fact, compare with the decorations on an earlier Königsberg amber and ivory board, dated 1594, in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Kassel (Link, op. cit. figs. 5-6); the presence of these elements accords with the early date of the present board. The use of each of these techniques, points to a maker of superlative proficiency, and, given the close similarities with the signed board, an attribution to Schreiber can be confidently proposed.
One further comparison should be considered, however. Another games board in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Kassel, dated: 1611 and inscribed: H.K. (inv. No. B VI. 218). Like the present board, the Kassel example has an ebony superstructure, which creates an attractive contrast with the warm coloured amber. Significantly, the Kassel board has a similar hinge mechanism, where the hinges are attached to the outside edge of the board; it also has a comparable lock clasp. Perhaps the closest link between the two is a stylistic one, in both boards busts of men and women in contemporary dress appear within roundels in alternate squares on the chess board. In the 2001 Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Kassel catalogue, Meinolf Siemer suggests that the letters HK stand for the Königsberg maker Hans Klingenberg, and that the board can therefore be attributed to his hand or workshop (Schmidberger and Richter, op. cit. p. 178, no. 72). Laue, however, maintains that the Kassel games board can be considered within Schreiber’s oeuvre (Laue, op. cit. p. 23, n. 44). Given the similarities with the signed board, this seems likely.
The date of the present board, 1607, makes it the earliest games board within Schreiber's oeuvre. Moreover, the close correspondences with each of the subsequent examples attributed to his hand confirm it to be their progenitor: the first in a distinguished line of virtuoso princely objects.
The Printed Sources
Renaissance amber carvers, like goldsmiths, cabinet-makers and sculptors, used printed patterns as models for their own works. Such engravings, made ubiquitous by the flourishing printing industry, were seldom directly translated into sculptural form; a craftsman might take individual motifs and construct his own invention or he might simply adapt a given model. It is known that Georg Schreiber used printed sources as inspiration for his relief carvings and engravings. An amber charger by Schreiber in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden is centered on an engraving with the flight of the Roman Cloelia from the camp of the Etruscan King Porsenna (inv. no. III 86), which is a close rendering in amber of a print by the 16th century Nuremberg engraver Georg Pencz (c. 1500-1550) (see Reiter, op. cit. pp. 64-5, figs. 53-4). In the present games board, a number of the white amber relief scenes have identifiable printed sources. The six large reliefs arranged along the central bands of the backgammon boards are taken almost directly from engravings by another Nuremberg artist, Virgil Solis (1514-1562); in accordance with the board’s secular, classicizing iconography, the scenes narrate episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. From left to right, they are respectively taken from the following engravings by Solis: Mercury and Argus; Phaethon Asks to Drive the Chariot of Apollo; Phaethon on Apollo’s Chariot; Phaethon’s Sisters Changed into Poplars; Mercury Changes Battus into a Stone (each from the Metamorphoses Ovidii by Virgil Solis, see Bartsch, nos. 7.17; 7.20; 7.21; 7.23; 7.32). Given the narrative arrangement of scenes, it seems likely that left roundel on the right board derives from Solis’ The Fall of Phaethon, (see Bartsch, no. 7.22). Four roundels with reliefs taken from the same engravings by Solis narrating the story of Phaethon can be found in the same positions on the interior of an amber games board in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which is today attributed to Georg Schreiber (inv. no. A. 11-1950) (see Laue, op. cit. pp. 22-3).
Amber: Its History and Mythology in the West
The presence of scenes with Phaethon (or Phaeton) on amber objects is to be expected. Ovid, in his epic poem, Metamorphoses, tells of the story of Phaethon, son of Helios, the sun-god (often conflated with Apollo), who persuades his father to permit him to drive his chariot across the skies as a test of his paternity. Inexperienced and therefore unable to control the powerful chariot, he releases the reigns, is shot down by Jupiter’s thunderbolt and falls in flames to his death in the River Eridanus. His sisters, the Heliades metamorphosed into poplars as they wept, their tears turning into drops of amber.
Amber has held an important place in the history of Western culture since before even Ovid’s poetic description of its genesis. One of the earliest recorded references to the material is made by Homer, who describes the Palace of Menelaus as ‘flashing with gold and amber’ (Williamson, op. cit. pp. 26-7); a reference that underscores the status of amber as a luxury material from earliest times. During the Medieval period, as trade opened up, the lands around modern day Königsberg and Gdansk (or Danzig) established themselves as the principal exporters of amber in Europe; though still rare, the material was periodically washed up in small quantities on beaches, and a rich seam was later discovered in the earth. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries the supply of amber from the Baltic was strictly controlled by the ruling Teutonic Order. The Order, who coveted their monopoly, exported amber to Lübeck and Bruges, where it was used principally in the production of rosaries. When, in 1525, the Grand Master of the Order, Albrecht of Hohenzollern, converted to Lutheranism and became Duke of Prussia, the art of amber working flourished as demand for secular courtly objects increased. Königsberg, the seat of the Prussian Court, became the leading centre for the production of amber works of art, until it was overtaken by Danzig towards the middle of the seventeenth century.
Objects composed of amber were particularly prized by seventeenth-century nobles for the rarity of their material and its natural properties. Finely worked amber caskets, games boards, cups and other objets d’arts were exchanged as diplomatic gifts and could be found in the Kunstkammern of the wealthiest and most learned rulers and merchants in Europe, including those of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and Frederick II of Denmark.
A Discussion of the Provenance
The present games board is believed to have been owned by King Charles I of England (1600-1649), who may have inherited it from his father King James I (1566-1625) or his elder brother Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (1594-1612). As is recorded in the 1855 publication 'Relics of Charles I' (Notes & Queries, op. cit. pp. 174-5), in the closing days of the English Civil War the King was said to have taken the games board to the scaffold, where, prior to his execution, he bequeathed it, together with a copy of King James’ Bible, to William Juxon (1582-1663), Bishop of London and his close confidant. The King is also widely recorded as having handed his insignia of the Order of the Garter, the Scaffold George, to Juxon moments before his death, with the proviso that it be sent to the Prince of Wales (Partridge, op. cit. p. 91).
If the tradition is to be believed, the games board descended in the Juxon family and was left to Susannah Marriott, who, through her later marriage to Charles Fane, Viscount Fane, became Lady Fane, and, in turn, bequeathed it to Sir Robert Hesketh (1729-1796), who took the additional surname Juxon. In her will, Lady Fane writes ‘I give and bequeath to Sir Robert Hesketh all my Household goods and furniture in my House at Little Compton as a compensation for any goods and furniture as were left by Sir William Juxon for my use during my life as may have been damaged or destroyed’ (Will of The Rt. Hon. Lady Susannah, Viscountess Fane, Dowager of St. George’s Hanover Square, London. 10th April 1792. (Public Record Office)). It thence descended in the Hesketh family and was definitely recorded for the first time in 1855 as being in their collection at Rufford Hall, Lancashire; it has remained in the hands of that family until the present day. The Bible, which was bequeathed by King Charles to Bishop Juxon, is understood to have been given by Viscountess Fane to her neighbour John Jones of Chastleton in Oxfordshire, when she resided at Little Compton as Lady Juxon. It descended thereafter in the Jones family and is now in the collection of the National Trust at Chastleton. The Scaffold George, the last possession given by King Charles to Juxon, is today in the Royal Collection (Wood, op. cit. p. 146).
The possible Stuart royal provenance is given credence by the superlative quality of the games board. Amber objects of this rank are recorded in the foremost princely collections of the period, such as that of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who is said to have possessed a ‘very precious games board all made up of amber, enhanced [‘amaliert’] with gold and set in ivory, including stones of yellow and white amber and in a specially painted box, all of amber, too’ (Hagg, op. cit. p. 52-3). High quality amber objets d’arts frequently functioned as diplomatic gifts and it would not have been unexpected for such an object to be sent by the Elector of Brandenburg, who controlled Prussia and therefore the amber supply in 1607, to the court of James I, a powerful foreign monarch and a possible future Protestant ally.
The present games board would have been a fitting possession for the future Charles I or his brother Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, with its didactic central medallion depicting the story of the courageous ideal youth, Mucius Scaevola. Most relevant to them, however, would have been the inscription, Zu Gott Allein Die Hoffnung Mein (My only hope is God alone) for this is close to the personal motto of their maternal grandfather Frederick II of Denmark, whose own collection of amber, unrivalled in its magnificence, can still be viewed to this day at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen.
James I, in fact, encouraged his eldest son to enjoy board games. In Basilikon Doron, he instructs Henry Frederick, ‘as for fitting house pastimes ... since they may at times supply the roome, which, beeing empty, would be parent to pernitious idleness ... I will not therefore agree with the curiosity of some learned men in our age, in forbidding cardes, dice, and other such like games of hazard ... when it is foule and stormie weather; then, I say, may ye lawfully play at the cardes or tables’ (James I, op. cit. pp. 156-7).
Gaming was enthusiastically undertaken at a wider level in the Jacobean and Caroline courts. Nichols records a ‘great golden play’ taking place at court on Twelfth Night in 1607, the same year that the present games board was made (Nichols, op. cit. vol. 1, p. 162). Few courtiers, however, were as devoted to tables as Charles I. One source observed, ‘The King when he is neither in the field … nor at the Council, passes most of his time at chess with the Marquis of Winchester’ (Murray, op. cit. p. 839). Revealingly, it was said that, when, at the height of the Civil War, a messanger arrived to inform the King that he had been betrayed by the Scots to the Parliamentarian forces, he did not rise from his game of chess (Murray, op. cit. p. 839).
Charles I certainly owned an amber games board of the same type as the present example. The 1649-51 inventory of the King’s goods records ‘A Paire of Tables [i.e. two games boards joined together to form a diptych] of White and Yellowe Amber garnished with silver. The Tablemen and Dice suiteable in a greene Case of vellvett att’ (no. 301). Underneath the entry, it is noted that it was ‘Sold to Latham 14 May 1650’ for the sum of £30 (Millar, op. cit. p. 177). William Latham, to whom the document refers, was the King’s woolen-draper and the representative of a group of creditors, to whom the Crown was indebted. These creditors received unsold goods from the Royal Collection sale as compensation for the debts owed to them; the price of £30 for the games board was predetermined by the Trustees of the sale. The creditors then sold on the items they received.
Given the rarity of amber objects in 17th-century England, and the superb quality of the present games board, which could only have been owned by a person of great wealth, it seems likely that the present board is, in fact, the same as that which appears in the 1649-51 Royal inventory. Moreover, it should be considered that the tradition of its passing to Juxon by gift from the King and the fact of its sale after the King’s death are both true. The Scaffold George, which was similarly handed to Juxon by King Charles, is known to have been confiscated from the Bishop and auctioned off (it appears in the same inventory, see Millar, op. cit. p. 324, no. 34); the Scaffold George was later acquired by those sympathetic to King Charles’ wishes and sent to the Prince of Wales (Partridge, op. cit. pp. 91-3). It is likely that the same fate befell the games board and that, forced to relinquish it, Juxon reacquired the board from the King’s creditors following its sale in 1650.
J. Nichols, The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities, of King James the First, his Royal Consort, Family and Court, London, 1828, vol. IV, p. 148; King James I, 'Basilikon Doron' (1599), reprinted in A Miscellany, London, 1888, pp. 156-7; H. J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, Oxford, 1913, p. 839, note. 8; G. C. Williamson, The Book of Amber, London, 1932, pp. 26-44; Objets d’art in Amber from the Collection of the Catherine Palace Museum (17th-early 20th centuries), exhib. cat. Catherine Palace, St Petersburg, 1990, pp. 11-5, 34, no. 1; O. Millar (ed.), 'The Inventories and Valuations of The King's Goods 1649-1651,' The Walpole Society, vol XLIII, London, 1970-1972, pp. 117, 324, nos. 301, 34; E. Link, Die Landgräfliche Kunstkammer Kassel, Kassel, 1981, figs. 5-6; M. Trusted, Catalogue of European Ambers in the Victoria and Albert Museum London, 1985, pp. 9-23, 28-31, no. 2; J. S. Peters (ed.), The Illustrated Bartsch 19 (Part 1), New York, 1987, pp. 476-7, 479, nos. 7.17; 7.20; 7.21; 7.22; 7.23; 7.32; A. MacGregor (ed.), The Late King's Goods. Collections, Possessions and Patronage of Charles I in the Light of the Commonwealth Sale Inventories, London and Oxford, 1989, pp. 409-11; D. Lagomarsino and C. T. Wood, The Trial of Charles I. A Documentary History, Hanover and London, 1989, p. 146; T. Ayers, ‘An Amber gaming board,’ Sotheby’s Art at Auction 1989-90, London, 1990, pp. 311-4; R. B. Partridge, 'O Horrable Murder.' The Trial, Execution and Burial of King Charles I, London, 1998, pp. 91-3; E. Schmidberger and T. Richter, Schatzkunst 800 bis 1800. Kunsthandwerk und Plastik der Staatlichen Museen Kassel, Kassel, 2001, p. 178, no. 72; J. Kappel, Bernsteinkunst aus dem Grünen Gewölbe, exhib. cat, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, 2005, pp. 11-23, 49-51, 56-9, nos. 5, 8, 9; W. Seipel, Bernstein für Thron und Altar. Das Gold des Meeres in fürstlichen Kunst- und Schatzkammern, exhib. cat. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2005, pp. 54-8, nos, 26, 27; G. Laue, ‘Ambers from Konigsberg for Europe’s Kunstkammer: Master Craftsman Georg Schreiber and his Workshop,’ G. Laue, Bernstein. Kostbarkeiten Europäischer Kunstkammern, Munich, 2006, pp. 10-22; B. Platter, ‘The Gold of the Order of the Tuetonic Knights in Prussia,’ G. Laue, Bernstein. Kostbarkeiten Europäischer Kunstkammern, Munich, 2006, pp. 36-43; S. Haag, ‘Glimpses of the Amber Collection at the Viennese Kunst- un Schatzkammer,’ G. Laue, Bernstein. Kostbarkeiten Europäischer Kunstkammern, Munich, 2006, pp. 44-55; K. Hinrichs, Berstein 'Das Preussische Gold' in Kunst- und Naturaliernkammern und Museen des 16.-20. Jahrhunderts, PhD dissertation, Humboldt University, Berlin, 2010
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