Our Chessmen were taken, but Scotland is heaving with stolen art.
Saturday January 12, 2008
National causes can be made of small things - one thinks of Jenkins' Ear - but few can have had such a charming and witty source as the collection of small objects known as the Lewis Chessmen that have since the mid-19th century delighted visitors to the British Museum. The chessmen inspired the stories of Noggin the Nog; Harry and Ron Weasley played a game with replicas in the first Potter film. People take a great shine to them: the queens with their hands to their cheek looking so wise (or so bored), the wardens or rooks furiously biting their shields (the "berserkers", the soldiers of Odin).
Now they have been registered as a political grievance. Scotland's first minister wants them back. On December 19, Alex Salmond made a speech outlining the Scottish government's proposals to preserve the Gaelic language, and containing the following two sentences: "I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessmen are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett formula. And you can be assured that I will continue campaigning for a united set of Lewis Chessmen in an independent Scotland." This isn't quite the same thing as Captain Robert Jenkins showing off his pickled ear to the House of Commons in 1738, prompting a war against Spain that lasted nine years. Nevertheless, the war of the Lewis Chessmen threatens to run and run.
The comparison with the Barnett formula, which sets the level of Scottish subvention from the UK Treasury, is unclear, but the pieces are not "scattered around". The British Museum holds 67 chessmen and the National Museum of Scotland 11. They were made from walrus ivory in the 12th century, most probably in Norway. Chess had reached Norse civilisation not long before, after its slow journey from India to southern Europe via Persia and Arabia. Europe had humanised the abstract form of the Oriental pieces, even feminised one of them by turning the vizier into a queen, and military Christianity had replaced princes or "leapers" with bishops with mitres and croziers. To quote the excellent monograph written by a British Museum curator, James Robinson, the chessmen are "unique survivals ... no other visual record survives that documents so perfectly the full range and variety of arms and armour used in 12th-century combat". The likeliest speculation is that these beautifully crafted luxuries were on their way to princes or traders in the Norse-held territories of Ireland or the Isle of Man when, for reasons unknown, they were buried in the sand dunes of western Lewis.