Ayres Antique Staunton Chessmen, 3-1/8"

Lot #638 Ayres Antique Staunton Chessmen, 3-1/8″ King

Ayres Antique Staunton Chessmen, 3-1/8″ King.

Offered here is a fine set of heavily weighted Boxwood and Ebony Ayres Antique Staunton chessmen. This set of chessmen has a 3-1/8″ tall by 1-3/8″ diameter base King with some of the original green baize base pads which were moth-eaten replaced. The chessmen are housed in its original Mahogany box, which is lined in green baize. These particular chessmen were produced around 1925-1930, based on the somewhat less detailed Knight head which are typical in later chessmen of this type. There are crown impressions on the summits of the Boxwood Kingside Rook and the Kingside Knights. The chessmen are in good condition, but the Ebony King’s Rook is a replacement. In addition, there is a small point missing from the boxwood and Ebony Queen’s coronet (See Image) and there is a crack in the base of the Ebony Rook. The only other flaws might be a few very small hairline cracks which were missed during inspection, but which are typical for this chessmen style. The chessboard is not included, but is available for purchase.

These chessmen are often attributed to F. H. Ayres or The British Chess Company. Probably, the most appropriate moniker that should be applied when referring to them is SCA (So Called Ayres) Chessmen. Regardless who actually produced these chessmen, they are of very high quality, almost the equal of Jaques of London chessmen from the 1930s.

F.H. Ayres was an English sports and Games manufacturer and retailer dating back to 1810, doing business in Aldersgate in the city of London. It is known from various ads that they produced and sold Chess sets of various quality and styles. However, despite putting their name on most of their other products, they never put their name on their chess sets. This has led to a real problem of identifying which style Staunton chessmen they did produce and whether they sold them at the retail level or only wholesale to retailer or other manufacturers. A report in the June, 1895 issue of Strand Magazine, by William G. Fitzgerald, documents visits to several London firms that made sporting goods. The visit to F. H. Ayres takes up most of the space in the article. The article contains many images, though not actual photographs, but ‘half-tone’ images.

The British Chess Company (BCC) was founded by William Moffatt (1843-1918) and William Hughes, and began manufacturing chess pieces in 1891 until their apparent demise in around 1907 or so.  The BCC attempted to compete for the chess set market against the established firm of Jaques of London. Their unique contribution to the design of Staunton chessmen, aside from their patented Imperial and Royal chessmen, was their use of Xylonite. Invented in 1869, Xylonite is a Celluloid, a class of compounds created from nitrocellulose and camphor. (Xylonite is generally considered the first thermoplastic.) Moffatt devised a method of reducing the cost or producing chessmen by molding the Knight heads from Xylonite. Carving the Knight heads can represent almost 50% of the total cost of producing a set of quality chessmen. In this manner, BCC was able to manufacture a set of high quality chessmen at half the cost of its competitors. It is sometimes claimed that BCC stopped producing their own chessmen around 1903, with other chess activities continuing for a few more years. However, that claim has not been substantiated and there is ample evidence that shows their still ofeirng chessmen as late as 1907. Additional information on the British Chess Company can be found in the following article.

Ayres Chessmen Ad
Ayres Chessmen Ad

All this has led to a running debate – What is an Ayres Chess set?  The argument in favor of Ayres goes something like this. “Ayers made wooden chessmen. This is a set of wooden chessmen. ergo, Ayres made these chessmen. other than that argument, nothing more substantive has been put forward supporting the thesis that these sets were made by F. H. Ayres. The image to the left is from an Ayres ad for their Staunton chessmen. Compare this image with the chessmen offered here and elsewhere, claiming to be made by F. H. Ayres. It is not very convincing.

The observation in the Strand Magazine article that Ayres employed twenty craftsmen making chess sets does not suggest a very large operation. Also, please note the attached ad for Ayres chessmen. It does not appear to looks anything like the set we are discussing (image attached). At least, the BCC ads closely resemble their sets as my previous email clearly shows. At the end of 1891, BCC produced its first catalog illustrating their registered designs. However, aside from a few ads by Ayres illustrating rather ubiquitous images of Staunton chessmen designs, there was never a catalog produced by Ayers illustrating the range and prices of chessmen offered by them nor any supporting images of their various designs. here have been some suggestions that these sets were made by a different company (Jaques or BCC) but so far no documentary evidence has been produced to support or refute this assertion.

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