The Chess Players : A Chequered Response

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Text © Bob Davenport, from the September 2012 William Roberts Society Newsletter

The Chess Players

The Chess Players, 1929–30
Oil on canvas, 101.5 cm x 92 cm

The sale of William Roberts's The Chess Players 1929–30 for £1,161,250, after a four-way bidding battle at Sotheby's on 10 May 2012, was a striking vindication not only of Roberts but also of this painting, which had not always been well received.

In 1931 P. G. Konody in The Observer described it as 'a dramatic rendering of a whole phase of human life and nature' and praised Roberts's 'faculty of stating with unerring precision the essential character of certain aspects of humanity'. [1] Then in 1934–5 the picture was one of 253 works of 'Contemporary British Art' which the Empire Art Loan Collections Society sent to tour New Zealand and Australia.

The tour began in Christchurch. The review in the Christchurch Press was polite, but comments in the paper's letters columns were less so, and The Chess Players was the main target of criticism. 'Poker Ned', for example, described it as showing 'some men playing chess with glassy marbles stuck in their heads to represent their eyeballs', and claimed he had been advised to 'move back 15 feet and stand on my head [to] get the beauty of the picture'. He had really gone to the show, he said, 'to divert my mind from what Larwood was going to do next, but while there I was sorry I did not have Larwood with me practising bodyline bowling' (which was odd, as the controversially aggressive English bowler Harold Larwood had by then ended his Test career). [2]

'Much Disappointed' complained of WR's 'decadent figures with small heads and monstrous hands', and saw in many of the pictures 'the modern worship of ugliness instead of beauty'. [3] A. Wells Newton was baffled by 'the mentality of a man who depicts fellow human being as [Roberts] does . . . Does this man hold a low view of his fellow creatures, or is this merely his joke against the critics?' For him, Roberts's work was 'not art, but rather . . . a travesty of art, a stultification of and almost one might say a prostitution of art'. [4] And there was more in the same vein.

It was left to W. Basil Honour of the modernist New Zealand Society of Artists to point out that 'Mr. Newton makes the obvious error of criticising pictures because he does not like them. He does not like them because he does not understand them or know them. In front of a piece of intricate machinery he would remain mute. But before a work of art he expands himself. He assumes it should be something in the nature of a reproduction of his own vision of things, and is annoyed that artists are not so flattering.' [5]

In Adelaide it was much the same story, with one of the writers to The Advertiser detecting 'the spirit of Bolshevism' in the works as a whole [6], and another declaring that 'pictures such as "The Chess Players," by William Roberts, appear to me as an affront to all that is lovely and beautiful in art.' [7]

In Melbourne The Argus 's reviewer commented that 'The player in the foreground with the diminutive cranium appears to be innocent of the possible violence in the rolling blue eyes of his companions; the lady with the enormous deltoids looks a match for anyone with either dagger or pistol; and the lady with the luxuriant bosom looks completely "fed up" not only with her lay figure hands, which cannot turn the page, but with everything else.'  [8] And so it went on.

In contrast, when the picture was shown in Wolverhampton in 1937, the Express and Star seemed quite restrained in its comment that it 'irresistibly reminds one of a trio of American gangsters and their "molls"', with its 'crude forms intentionally created by an artist who can also produce the vivid and handsome "Creole Woman", in which anatomical knowledge is demonstrated to be complete'. [9]


[1] P. G. Konody, 'Mr. Willam Roberts', The Observer, 1 November 1931
[2] The Press (Christchurch), 25 June 1934
[3] Ibid., 29 June 1934.
[4] Ibid., 30 June 1934.
[5] Ibid., 4 July 1934.
[6] William C. Quin in The Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 February 1935.
[7] Olive Neville in ibid., 25 February 1935.
[8] Arthur Streeton in The Argus (Melbourne), 29 May 1935.
[9] 'Modern art shocks for Wolverhampton', Express and Star (Wolverhampton), 13 March 1937.

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