Lot #16. Wedgwood Flaxman Chessmen



Offered here is a set of Wedgwood Flaxman Chessmen reproduced from the original Wedgwood molds. John Flaxman originally designed the chessmen for Josiah Wedgwood in 1783, but they were probably not produced until 1785. The Wedgwood Flaxman chessmen were modeled after the characters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This Wedgwood Blue and Bisque set was made in the Wedgwood factory in limited quantities from the original molds in 2006 and was commissioned by Tony Raynes. These are exactly the same as the sets made by Wedgwood in 1783. The Wedgwood Flaxman Chessmen were made in solid colors, and in white jasper with blue, green or lilac dip bases. Up to 130 sets were sold between. 1785 and 1795. Their design is a remarkable example of eighteenth century Gothic, seldom seen in ceramics.

Wedgwood Chess HistoryAs a bit of  background, 1775, Josiah Wedgwood perfected Jasperware, a kind of hard, fine-grained, slightly translucent stoneware that could be decorated by applying another color, customarily white, to the ground. The ground was often stained the well-known shade of “Wedgwood blue,” but it could also be lavender, pale green, mustard yellow, cobalt, or other colors. Wedgwood’s name became synonymous with Jasperware, and his international reputation was achieved by the popularity of pieces often based on the shapes of Greek vases.

The sculptor John Flaxman (1755–1826) designed a large body of work for production by Wedgwood. one of the most famous  is the Wedgwood Jasperware chessmen,  which are based on the characters in Shakespeare’s  Macbeth. An interesting fact is that  Flaxman’s bill dated 30th October, 1783, charges £1.5.0 for ‘A figure of a fool for chess, probably a model in wax, and three guineas is charged on the same bill, but dated more than a year later, for ‘Three days employed in drawing bas relief vases, Chessmen etc’. On the 5th of February, 1784, Flaxman wrote to Josiah Wedgwood: ‘I return you many thanks, for the liberal praise you bestow on my chess figures’. As the books for 1783 show, the chessmen were already in production in December, and in 1785 Flaxman produced a remarkable drawing in pen and wash, showing the eighteen different pieces arranged on two shelves. This drawing, for which he charged six guineas, may have been intended for use in the Greek Street Showrooms, but there is also the possibility that, although not sold until 1785, it was originally executed in 1783 to give Joshua Wedgwood a clear idea of the look of the proposed chessmen. It would have been invoiced later, when Wedgwood decided to actually use the design.


There were many theories and stories written about, Identification of Wedgwood Chess Pieces. The major one being, ‘that if it does not say WEDGWOOD on the base or back of the piece, then it is NOT WEDGWOOD (Except in the case of some of the earliest pieces). There are also ways to approximately date the pieces and they were made in different clays and stone etc. which usually cured at different speeds and ended up as different sizes. (Acknowledgments to  Tony Raynes of Chess Collectors Internationaal for the above very thorough research)