Dr. Timothy Harding, author of previous deeply researched works on chess history including Correspondence Chess in Britain and Ireland, 1824-1987, 2011, Eminent Victorian Chess Players, 2012, and Joseph Henry Blackburne, 2015, all published by McFarland, surveys British (and Irish) chess literature up to the First World War in this latest work:
British Chess Literature to 1914: A Handbook for Historians, published by McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina 2018.
The Preface sets out clearly the aims and content of the book which has a special emphasis on chess columns, and these are comprehensively examined in the first four chapters, plus the very detailed 45 page Appendix I. British and Irish Chess Columns to 1914: An Annotated List, describing nearly 600 columns. Chess Periodicals also receive extensive coverage, especially The Chess Player's Chronicle and its successors which are covered in a separate chapter of 54 pages.
The history and description of chess columns and periodicals take up six of the seven chapters, and 230 of the 274 pages which discuss chess literature, leaving just one chapter of 44 pages for the comparatively weak examination of chess books; and anyone hoping for a thorough review of the rich history of British chess books will be very disappointed. As early as page 10 Harding dismisses old chess books as having "little to offer the historian" and it is clear that the author is much more inclined towards chess columns and periodicals than general chess books.
Harding forewarns the reader of the cursory coverage of chess books stating that he has not attempted to discuss every chess book that was published because he considers that their value to historians is limited compared to what columns and magazines have to offer. He therefore provides a "less comprehensive and more personal view about old chess books, concentrating on some trends and particular titles that interest the author".
The book is the result of fifteen years of research, partly, no doubt, alongside the explorations for his earlier publications, and the author has dug up considerable new information. He clarifies many issues and solves several mysteries, but also puts forward many more such as:
Who wrote The Illustrated London News column before Staunton? (page 29),
Who were Staunton's backers in The Chess World? (page 141),
Who edited and contributed to The London Chess Fortnightly while the nominal editor Emanuel Lasker was in America? (page 174),
What were the precise dates of the various editors of one of the very best chess columns in The Field? (page 61),
Who edited the third series of The Chess Player's Chronicle between 1859 and 1861? (page 208).
There is also the tantalising reference on page 157 to the Prospectus issued in August 1879 by Hoffer and Zukertort for their forthcoming periodical The Chess Monthly, "which appears not to have survived".
Harding is not averse to criticising his fellow authors (see for example his article A reply to Richard Moody in the 2nd edition of his book on the Evans Gambit, Texas 1996), and on page 16 he again has a go at Gino Di Felice's Chess Periodicals,
Jefferson 2010, having previously lambasted this work on his Chess Mail
website and again on pages 83 et seq. of Caissa, the Journal of Chess and Board Game History, 2/2016. Despite
the few omissions and errors in Di Felice's work, it is undoubtedly a very
valuable aid to chess researchers.
The comprehensive coverage of 19th century chess columns is the product of some remarkable research, not only of chess history but also of the social, cultural and financial circumstances of the time, and Harding associates the fluctuating popularity of chess and its literature with the changing social and financial climate during the century.
One matter that the author straightens out in the chapter on The Earliest Chess Editors is the editorship of the chess column in The Lancet from 1823 to 1824. This was by Thomas Wakley and not George Walker to whom the column has often been attributed, including by Whyld in his Chess Columns: A List, Olomouc 2002.
Harding also observes that such was the proliferation of chess columns during what he describes in chapter 3 as The Golden Age of Chess Columns, ca. 1860-1865, that it has been impossible to examine them all, leaving much material for future research.
The author makes helpful remarks on the usefulness, or otherwise, of the numerous chess columns to chess historians, particularly praising Land and Water and The Field for example, while writing off others as having little of interest. Harding generally writes in a free-flowing, easy to read style, although there are plenty of places where the prose could be improved. There is little, if any humour, but he does evoke the atmosphere of the era and brings to life some of the frictions between the factions, i.e. the ill-feeling and animosities between the English and foreign chess editors of the time.
The chapter entitled A Short History of Chess Magazines up to 1914 gives brief details of most of the English language magazines up to that date, including some American Magazines, and Harding notes that many were short lived and were not financially viable. In discussing The British Chess Magazine Harding highlights the revolutionary change, in 1892, in the placement of annotations within the game score instead of at the end, "where they had hitherto languished in all chess books and columns with miserable indications (sometimes omitted or misplaced) to show where they belonged".
Some periodicals are examined in more depth than others and The British Miscellany, forerunner of The Chess Player's Chronicle, but with little chess content itself, receives inordinate coverage on pages 178 to 192 and in the whole of Appendix IV. While historically important in the evolution of chess periodicals and including some of the final games played by de la Bourdonnais, the attention given does not balance with the coverage of some other mainstream chess periodicals which are hardly discussed at all.
Harding's very detailed account of The Chess Player's Chronicle is now the definitive historical record of this long running periodical, with comprehensive information on the many stops and starts, owners, editors and publishers throughout its chequered career from 1841 to 1902. He is sympathetic to the difficulties facing Staunton in the early years due to the shortage of suitable chess material in the 1840's, and when discussing Staunton's successor, R. B. Brien, he quotes Brien's astute comment regarding the effort involved in game annotations; that "few appreciate the labour but all reap the advantages". This certainly hits the nail on the head not only in annotating games but in chess writing in general.
The author also raises the very valid point that, due to the break in publication of the CPC in 1857 and 1858, there was no contemporary coverage in British chess periodicals of the important Manchester 1857 and Birmingham 1858 tournaments, and even more lamentably, on Morphy's first visit to Europe.
One matter that I disagree on is Harding's assessment of The Chess Amateur (1906 to 1930) as having "little to offer historians". This successful periodical had a star cast of contributors and a great many articles and items of interest to current chess historians, not least the many items taken from the contemporary chess historian W. S. Branch's column in The Cheltenham Examiner.
The final chapter on chess literature; A Century and half of British Chess Books, actually examines nearly four and half centuries of chess books published from 1475 to 1914. However, as previously mentioned, the author has a low opinion of the usefulness of old chess books to historians and researchers, claiming that chess columns and periodicals contain far more useful factual information. He does however, make some valid points about how antiquarian books should be viewed from a cultural history perspective and he also acknowledges that most old chess books have some value for collectors, but he erroneously singles out chess problem works as being the most desirable. Tournament and match books, biographies and many early treatises are equally sought after.
The discussion of chess books in this chapter is cursory in the extreme, many important books are not mentioned at all and many others receive only the briefest passing reference. For example Sarratt's two volume work A Treatise on the Game of Chess, London 1808, is discussed at length on pages 238 to 240, but his more important, although abridged, translations of the works of Damiano, Ruy Lopez, Salvio, Gianutio and Selenus receive just a single sentence on page 240. These translations provided the first opportunity for many English speaking people to study the classic Continental chess authors of the past. Similarly, Lewis's edition of Greco; Gioachino Greco on the Game of Chess, London 1819, receives a passing mention but his similar works on Stamma and Carrera are omitted.
Hoyle's books are covered in a single sentence and there is no mention of other games compendiums. Published in large numbers and many editions, these works were the only source of chess instruction for many players. Conversely there is a full page illustration of an 1842 edition of Hoyle, but only a handful of chess books are illustrated.
Books are largely discussed in general terms and in line with the changing environment. For example Harding examines the price war between Walker and Lewis, and he explains the gradual increase in the publication of games collections, having previously stated on page 232 that no book before the 19th century included game scores between identifiable players; this sounds extraordinary if true. Harding devotes a large part of this chapter to books on the opening, which he has admitted are now of little theoretical interest, and are probably the least appealing to both historians and collectors; there is comparatively little on tournament and match books which provide an important record of events, or other useful reference books such as early chess histories and bibliographies.
There are many interesting titbits of information such as the revelation on page 118 that J. W. Abbott, editor of the Illustrated London News from 1888 to 1923, named his son Howard Staunton Abbott; and that G. B. Fraser was J. G. White's purchasing agent in Europe from the 1870's to the early 1900's. (page 215). On page 222 detective Harding exposes Baxter Wray, author of Chess at Odds of Pawn and Move, as actually being the publisher W. Morgan junior, and on page 237 he has some interesting comments on the extent of Francis Douce's involvement with Richard Twiss's Chess, 1787 and 1789 and Miscellanies, 1805. This is probably much less than previously thought.
In the final chapter: On Doing Chess History Today, the author shares his knowledge and experiences in researching chess history and advises on making the best use of both physical and non-physical research facilities, including archives, libraries, collections, genealogy and on-line resources.
The detailed Appendices summarise the content of some of the chapters, give additional information to others, and offer corrections and additions to some standard reference works. Appendix I is an annotated list of almost 600 British and Irish chess columns incorporating numerous corrections to Whyld's Chess Columns. Appendix II lists alphabetically British and Irish chess magazines to 1914 with dates, editors, publishers etc. Appendix III has some interesting corrections to The Oxford Companion to Chess and Appendix V lists over 100 amendments to the 1987 published edition of Jeremy Gaige's Chess Personalia.
The chapter notes at the end add more than 400 additional items of information to the main text. These are followed by a brief bibliography, Index of Games and General Index.
The book is printed on good quality acid-free paper but it is a pity that it was not published as a hardback and with better quality photographs and illustrations in colour; presumably cost constraints are to blame.
The author refers to himself as we, or us, or this author throughout except in the acknowledgements where he writes in the first person. This nosism is a little peculiar but what really grates is the constant use of Americanisms throughout the book. This work on British chess literature by an Irish author should be written in "English" English, not the U.S. variety, but the American publishers obviously disagree. The numerous American spellings and expressions are jarring to an "English" English reader, with some expressions being particularly awful such as the London subway (underground), and worst of all, St. Pancras railroad terminus!
The book is unfortunately blighted by many errors; some minor and some major; these are typographical, linguistic, grammatical and factual. I will send a list of those that I spotted to the author and there are undoubtedly many that I missed. It seems that proof reading from both language and factual viewpoints was weak or non-existent.
All in all the book is a fascinating and educational read and it is clear that the author has carried out an incredible amount of research. A corrected version of this work would be the standard reference book as far as chess columns and periodicals are concerned. However, a comprehensive survey of British chess books remains to be written.
© Michael Clapham 2018