While it may be better to travel than to arrive, time can lie weary on a voyager’s hands. This was certainly the case on the long journeys of the 19th century, which is when portable chess and chequers sets, cribbage boards and backgammon/chess/draughts sets (BCDs) first made an appearance in mainstream society. Used to pass the time as their owners made the Grand Tour or waged military campaigns, these beautiful and often ingenious objects have become highly collectable.
“Some collect portable games – those reduced in size and modified to use tiny pieces, with apparata to keep them in place on the board – for what’s inside, and some for what they tell us about modern history,” says Bruce Whitehill, author of American Board Games and Their Makers 1822-1992 and himself an avid collector. “Chess sets are very popular and some people have collections of up to 200, in many cases museum pieces.”
Depending on condition, rarity and maker, prices range from a few hundred pounds to the high thousands. London-based Gutlin Clocks, for example, has an 1850, mahogany chess set stamped “The Staunton Chessmen, Jaques & Sons, London”, with ivory figures, for £1,900.
Games from the 19th century are especially sought-after, says Sean Clarke of Gloucestershire-based Christopher Clarke Antiques, which specialises in items relating to military history and travel. “When transport changed and trains took over, travel chess sets came into their own. Before then, soldiers used just to take a pack of cards with them.” These new sets had “pieces with pins in the bottom that slotted into holes in the board so they didn’t get knocked off”.
Another desirable era is the 1920s and 1930s, which produced sets of a particularly high quality. Sotheby’s recently sold a c1935 travelling backgammon board from the estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, for £2,125. Made by Fortnum & Mason, it has leather cases and plastic counters.
When it comes to specific manufacturers, collectors turn first to Jaques London (which still makes boards today), says Clarke. A few years ago, he sold a beautifully conceived 1860 Jaques BCD for £545; it has a leather-edged cloth board that folds into a tube and is small enough to fit in a pocket. “But a lot of high-end retailers on Bond Street also made sets,” Clarke continues. “Asprey and Thornhills are two popular names.”
For collector Edward Copisarow, a trustee for a number of charities based in the southeast, travel games appeal on a variety of levels, from the ingenuity of the construction, such as the locking mechanisms that keep pieces on a board, to the stories behind the designs. “When patience became popular, people wanted to play while travelling by train,” he says. “They had to play it on their lap and therefore needed a board. Lady Adelaide Cadogan, author of Lady Cadogan’s Illustrated Games of Patience, designed several for Queen Victoria. Mary Whitmore Jones, who wrote Games of Patience for One or More Players and lived in Chastleton House in Oxfordshire, also designed some of these boards, now known as Chastleton boards. I have a few and they are all exactly the width of a first-class train seat – because it wouldn’t have occurred to her that people travelled in any other way.”
Patience boards (which fetch between £450 and £2,000) may be a less obvious choice than chessboards, but such overlooked board games hold a special charm for collectors, as do cribbage boards. Allan Hare, owner of Hares Antiques in Cirencester, currently has one very attractive ebony and mother-of-pearl example from about 1880 for £385. “It is an unusual design, more so as it is made in ebony, and very collectable,” he says.
Games compendiums – a similar idea to a BCD but with bigger boxes and a wider variety of games – are also much in demand. Entry level for these sets is about £500, while a stunning George Betjemann & Sons c1876 dome-topped coromandel compendium at Northamptonshire-based Hampton Antiques costs £6,500. It incorporates chess and cribbage sets made in ivory (the maker’s speciality), as well as a hidden drawer containing playing cards and boneshakers. “George Betjemann & Sons are particularly good for compendiums,” says owner Mark Goodger. He also has a decorative Betjemann coromandel engraved with a lion for £5,850, and a games box by Leuchars, another esteemed manufacturer, which contains chess, cribbage, backgammon and cards, for £4,995.
Sometimes it is a small detail rather than a make that attracts a collector’s attention. Fred Horn, a former employee of the Dutch government who lives in The Hague and recently donated his extensive collection to an archive in Bruges, was especially fascinated by a solitaire design in which the actual board had pins coming up, while the pieces had holes they could slot into.
And many collectors buy the sets to play with. “It’s a way to fully appreciate a piece’s history and provenance,” says Whitehill. “Playing with these games brings the era to life.” Mark Bordsen, a land-use planner from Colfax, Washington, began buying games, including a Chinese chequers set made for military personnel, to play with his two then young sons. He continues to collect and use the games – he and his wife took a midcentury cribbage set on their travels through her native Indonesia – and what began as a way of distracting his children has grown into an investment, with a collection of 3,000 games in total. Quite the journey, indeed.