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Visions of war captured in new FUEL book on chess design

For 1,500 years it has been a representation of the art of war over 64 black and white squares; a game that has captured the imagination of emperors, kings, queens, czars, rajas, tyrants, warlords and peacemakers. 

But chess through the centuries has also captivated the most important artists and designers of the age. 

For the first time, some of the most iconic chess sets ever designed have been brought together in a single book by FUEL, the London publishing house. 

The book, entitled “Masterworks” is produced in partnership with the World Chess Championship that takes place in New York in November at the Fulton Market Building in the Seaport District of Manhattan, between Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion and Sergey Karjakin

It is edited by Dylan Loeb McClain, the former chess columnist at The New York Times and includes chapters written by some of the foremost designers and chess set collectors in the world.

Many of the 49 chess sets in Masterworks have never been photographed before, with FUEL given unprecedented access to sets that in some cases have remained under lock and key for generations. 

Included in the book is a set made from amber that was commissioned by Catherine II of Russia in the 18th century, a 16th century set made from rock crystal that is identical to one owned by Louis XVI of France, and an 18th century carved ivory set described as “the most incomparable chess set in the world,” which was given by the last dowager empress of China to Queen Victoria and then passed down through the British royal family

Other sets include:

- A Chinese set that uses ivory rats as pieces;

- A 19th century set made to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo, featuring the major protagonists on the battlefield including Napoleon and a British general who is missing his right arm, just as he did in the battle

- A set designed specifically to be taken into space by Russian cosmonauts

- A set made for the Maharaja of Dholpur

The sets were captured by Kevin Dutton, the celebrated UK photographer, whose work regularly appears in the leading publications in the world. 

In the introduction to the book, McClain writes: “People usually think of chess only as a game, but that overlooks its historical, artistic and even political connections. For hundreds of years, some of the world’s great artists and artisans have designed and created chess sets.

“Some were for sale, some were to be admired, and some were for diversion in times of hardship and sorrow. Some used historical events and historical figures as their subject matter, others were social commentary. 

“In the last 100 years or so, avant garde artists and designers have turned to chess sets as a way to explore and push the limits of design and even the imagination.” 

Indeed, while many of the sets in the book were sculpted by court-appointed masters and made from the finest materials, other sets featured in the book have much more humble, but just as historically interesting origins. 

One such set was made in 1937, at the height of the Stalinist terror by an inmate of a camp near the Russian city of Vorkuta by someone known only as “engineer Shilov.”  It is made entirely from matchsticks and each piece is a dynamic colourful burst of abstract decoration, plainly influenced by the Constructivist art movement that had flourished during the Soviet Union’s brief experimentation with cultural plurality in the 1920s. 

The book was commissioned by World Chess by Agon Ltd, the organiser of the World Chess Championship.  

Ilya Merenzon, Chief Executive of Agon, said: “Masterworks is about design as much as it is about chess. So the FUEL team, with their incredible eye for the aesthetic, were the perfect choice to create this book. 

“Our mission is to bring chess to new audiences. This book supports our objective to demonstrate that chess and popular culture remain forever intertwined.” 

The newest set in the book, created by Pentagram, the renowned London-based design house, is currently used for all World Chess Championship matches. It is available for purchase through www.agonlimited.com

Masterworks will retail for $47.50 and will initially be available to purchase at the Fulton Market Building, the venue of the World Chess Championship from November 11. It will then be available from all good book sellers from March next year.