Beryn and Syrophanes Playing Chess. John Lucas Tupper.1851, plaster relief, 54 x 69.5 x 5 cm, Dennis T. Lanigan collection. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

A sculpture appeared at Christies South Kensington in 2014 attributed to “J. W. Tupper” that was obviously Beryn and Syrophanes Playing Chess by John Lucas Tupper, long thought lost and probably destroyed (Lanigan, PRS Review, 47). The relief had been unsuccessfully submitted for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1851, likely because it was considered too primitive or too original by the selection committee. In May 1851 William Michael Rossetti recorded in his diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:

We saw Tupper's bas-relief, which the Academy rejected. It is illustrative of The Merchant's Second Tale, by (or ascribed to) Chaucer, and represents the chess playing between the merchant and the old man he meets in the strange city. It is at the extremest edge of P.R.Bism, most conscientiously copied from nature, and with good character. The P.R.B. principle of uncompromising truth to what is before you is carried out to the full, but with some want of consideration of the requirements peculiar to the particular form of art adopted. According to all R.A. ideas, it is a perfect sculpturesque heresy, whose rejection - especially seeing that it is the introductory sample of the P.R.B. system in sculpture - cannot be much wondered at, though certainly most unjustifiable. [Rossetti, 1900, 305]

Tupper appears to have taken John Ruskin’s love of Gothic sculpture to the extreme in this work. The “two dimensionality” of Tupper’s relief may also have been influenced by illustrations of people playing chess found in medieval manuscripts. Certainly members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their close associates were known to have had an interest in such manuscripts at this time period. After Tupper’s relief was rejected by the Royal Academy he placed it at St George's Chess Club, which was to be host to the first international chess tournament that same year. — Dennis T. Lanigan


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Last modified 10 April 2021