Last Saturday afternoon my daughter and I went along to one of the National Gallery of Ireland’s regular showings of made for television art documentaries. This week’s film was on the Lewis Chessmen and their strange history. We have (or should I say He Who Put The Shelves Up has) a replica set of the Lewis Chessmen and even though I’ve never mastered the game I’m very fond of the little men (fiendish to dust though).
The history of the chessmen is shrouded in mystery as they were discovered sometime prior to April 1831 (when they were exhibited in Edinburgh) having been at some point buried in sand on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It is now thought likely that the figures which were carved from walrus ivory, were made in Norway between 1150-1200 AD. But how they came to be where they were found and who owned them is still, and will probably remain unknowable. The most likely theory is that they were being taken by a merchant to be sold. Even the details of the actual discovery of the carvings seems vague and uncertain.
The hoard found consisted of seventy-eight chess pieces plus fourteen counters and a belt buckle. The chess pieces are all exists from four chess sets but the remaining pieces have never been discovered. The known pieces are all in public hands, with sixty-seven in the British Museum and eleven in the Museum of Scotland and they do apparently go on tour also. The cover shown here is from a British Museum booklet that we have on our bookshelves. I scanned the back too because it gives a good idea of the tremendous detail in the carving. In the documentary, a craftsman explained how difficult and with what skill the ivory figures were carved.
But where does Noggin the Nog come into it I hear you ask? The answer is that the creator of the BBC Children’s Television series Peter Firmin was inspired by his visits to see the Lewis Chessmen to tell ‘their’ story. The result was a delightful saga of Noggin the Nog and his kingdom. As a child I loved this series and for anyone out there who has never heard of Noggin, or indeed of Nogbad the Bad here is a little excerpt culled from YouTube. The series was made by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate and was first broadcast in 1959, originally in black and white. Every episode began something like this:
Listen to me and I will tell you the story of Noggin the Nog, as it was told in the days of old”, or “In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale … and those tales they tell are the stories of a kind and wise king and his people; they are the Sagas of Noggin the Nog. Welcome to Northlands, a tribute to Noggin, King of the Nogs and the People of the Northlands.
I’m now feeling very nostalgic for old television programmes; I also have a renewed interest in one day going to see the original chessmen in either location. There have been calls for all of the pieces to be relocated to Scotland but there’s probably not much likelihood of that happening in the near future. However, the history society in Uig, Isle of Lewis has said that it doesn’t support calls to removed the men from London and is happy for them to remain where they are. Now, if anyone ever proves where the chess pieces were made then no doubt there will be another claim for return.
Any thoughts on this thorny issue of cultural items being repatriated?
Credits: Lewis Chessmen image taken from British Museum pages.
Noggin the Nog quotation taken from Wikipedia.
Noggin the Nog clip: uploaded to YouTube by Willow Long on 25 November 2009.