Featured Artifact: Owen Barfield’s Chess Set, by Owen A. Barfield

Owen A. Barfield, the grandson of Owen Barfield, joins “Off the Shelf” for this post featuring his grandfather’s chess set, currently displayed in the Wade Center’s Museum. The Wade Center is grateful to Mr. Barfield for sharing his memories with us and our readers.


Owen Barfield's chess set and pipe, displayed in the Wade Center's Museum area.

Owen Barfield’s chess set and pipe in the Wade Center’s Museum.

Chess was a much loved game in Grandfather’s family, played at home and in tea shops in the City of London, where the family firm was located. In fact, my great-grandfather, Arthur Edward Barfield (Owen’s father), preferred a more complex variant of the game played over two boards. This enthusiasm was fostered by his own father, John, creator of the first Congolese-English dictionary in 1883.

Owen Barfield as a young man playing chess, ca. 1914. Photo courtesy of Owen A. Barfield.

I’m not entirely sure how Grandfather came by this set, but I’ve always been under the impression that it was given to him by his father. In any case, the set remained with Grandfather all his life; and he was always glad to have the opportunity of a game.

Unusually, the pieces are coloured red and white. There is evidence to suggest that some of the very earliest chess pieces were coloured so, as opposed to the modern black and white. I’m thinking here of the Lewis Chessmen, of which Grandfather had two large museum reproduction pieces. These fascinating medieval chess pieces, discovered on a remote Hebridean island in 1831, were carved from walrus ivory or whale teeth. Some were stained red, suggesting that the original colour combination of the pieces was red and white.

"Polarity" oil painting by Owen A. Barfield.

“Polarity” oil painting by Owen A. Barfield, 2014. See http://www.owenbarfield.org/oil-paintings/ for more details.

I can see why this appealed to Grandfather: Red and white are the polarity colours in nature – as seen in the white spring blossom and red autumnal berries of the hawthorn tree. And polarity is the theme that so fully occupied much of Grandfather’s thought and that of his guide, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I enjoyed playing many games with Grandfather on this very chess set over the years. Our conversations on such occasions were limited (on my side, anyway, and mainly by the need to concentrate on the game), but wide-ranging. For instance, we might cover questions about the Eucharist (is the sacramental bread “really” the body of Christ?), before veering off to discuss the benefits of computer chess – I think Jeffrey [Jeffrey Barfield, son of Owen Barfield] had recently set up a programme for him, hooked up to his old portable, black and white, television screen.

Unsurprisingly, Grandfather never really took to computer games, and I assumed that the technology was simply too alien and too great a barrier. However, I’ve recently wondered if that was, in fact, the reason behind his lack of interest. After all, Grandfather was never one to be put off by intellectual challenges – he relished them, and would interrogate me on the workings of computers to a degree far beyond my level of competence!

Detail of the pieces from the chess set belonging to Owen Barfield.

Detail of the pieces from the chess set belonging to Owen Barfield.

No, perhaps the reason why Grandfather stuck to his old chess set lies in his response to my other question that day regarding communion bread. Typically, his answer was both simple and complex, and I should confess that I didn’t fully understand it at the time. Fortunately for me, he expanded on his reply in a letter, dated 29 November 1983 (a copy of which is in the Wade). In it, he relates the subject matter to words and meanings (which he described as the ‘insides’ of words). Like words, everything in nature has an inside and an outside: trees, flowers, bread, human beings – and the incarnated body of Christ:

“… the body of Christ also had an inside and the first few verses of St John’s Gospel point out that that Inside was not just like yours or mine. It was at the same time the Inside of the whole world, or the whole of Nature.”

As mere humans, we don’t contain the whole world or all of Nature within ourselves, but when we come together over a chess board to share something of the insides of ourselves with each other, we more closely approximate the divine. It is that sharing or communion that I think Grandfather missed when playing against a computer. And this is essentially why this particular set is special to me: Having been the physical conduit through and over which so much creative and imaginative play took place between connected souls, I believe it retains something of Grandfather, of myself, and of all the many friends with whom Grandfather ever shared a game.


Owen A. Barfield, Virginia coast, August 2014

Owen A. Barfield, August 2014

Owen A. Barfield is the Trustee of the Owen Barfield Literary Estate, and grandson of author and philosopher Owen Barfield. He is also an artist, and has overseen the publication of many of his grandfather’s books in a series of modern editions.

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