Occasional tables – they’re a weird concept, but given the Victorians’ fondness for decorative items and clutter, it’s not so surprising. When they have a cool inlaid chess board, they’re even better. I’m trying to live by the William Morris ethos (apologies for paraphrasing) of putting nothing in my house that is neither useful, nor beautiful. This circular walnut occasional table is something I believe to be beautiful.
I picked it up at an auction for £85 (it was valued at £50-£80, so on another day I might have paid less but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles – and anyway, it’s worth it). It has a chessboard inlaid top, turned central column and three knee carved cabriole* supports.
I did some reading before writing this post, and found some interesting bits of information about chess, the Victorians, and parlour games.
- Chess certainly predates the Victorian era – it was very popular among the Tudors (1485-1603) but has been played in western Europe since the early Middle Ages. In her writing on Tudor pastimes, Melita Thomas uses the Lewis Chessmen as an example of how far back this particular game goes in the hallways of history. She describes them as “chess pieces of walrus ivory, found on Lewis in 1831, but likely made in Norway in around AD 1150–1200”.
- The Victorians would have played chess, adults and children, but ‘parlour games’ that are specifically associated with this era are more imaginative. We can thank them for Charades and Blind Man’s Buff, for example (I know, right? Didn’t know that until now either!)
- Originally, the Queen was a weaker piece, but gained power throughout history (#preach). She has the ability to move vertically, horizontally and diagonally, and can cover any number of squares.
My occasional table doesn’t have any chess pieces on it at the moment, but I intend to buy some nice ones, and keep them in the drawer for a rainy day (some tables from the Victorian period were fitted with little drawers to keep pieces in).
*Shaped in two curves – the upper arc is convex, while lower is concave. The upper curve bows outward, while the lower curve bows inward. Also a type of movement in ballet.