The Chess Players

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Catalogue information based on the catalogue raisonné by David Cleall. For this and full details of the exhibitions cited, see the links below. Any auction prices quoted may not include all fees and taxes, such as VAT and Artist's Resale Right charges.

The Chess Players

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

Notes by John Roberts mention his father – 'a dogged player' – playing chess with Paul de Zoysa 'into the small hours'. It is possible, therefore, that the players shown here are members of the overseas-student community of which de Zoysa was a part.
'The sketch for [this] painting is called "Checkmate". The change of the title is significant: the anecdotal side of an incident in a game, from which Mr. Roberts derived his first inspiration, became of minor importance when it came to the painting of the picture. Here the problem broadens, and from a mere notation of a trivial occurrence grows into a dramatic rendering of a whole phase of human life and nature. It is this faculty of stating with unerring precision the essential character of certain aspects of humanity that makes Mr. Roberts more than an ordinary illustrator – P. G. Konody, 'Art and Artists: Mr. William Roberts', Observer, 1 Nov. 1931.
PROVENANCE: Contemporary Art Society (bought 1932, £75) > Newark Museum, NJ (gift, 1940) > Sotheby's 10 May 2012 (£1,161,250)
EXHIBITION HISTORY: London Artists' Association (3) 1931 (100 gns; 'Good composer as he is, Mr. Roberts can also hold a picture together by the sheer force of its emotion as indicated by attitude and facial expression – the moment of tension in "The Chess Players," for example' – The Times, 30 Oct. 1931), Venice 1932 (as I Giucatori di Scacchi), New Zealand and Australia 1934 (' . . . that very controversial painting "The Chess Players" by William Roberts. The people came and excited themselves over this picture. Full of joy, but mostly of horror, they wrote their letters to the papers' – The Group 1927–1977, Robert Dougall Art Gallery Survey 16, Christchurch, Nov. 1977, p. 6), Liverpool 1933, Tate Gallery (2) 1935, Wolverhampton 1937 ('The big canvas . . . by William Roberts, "The Chess Players", which irresistibly reminds one of a trio of American gangsters and their " molls", has 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' – Express and Star (Wolverhampton), 13 Mar. 1937), Whitechapel Gallery 1937, British Council 1939, Leicester Galleries 1939, Tate Gallery 1965, Ohio 1971

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