Two men face one another across a chessboard in this 1955 painting of Una’s (oil on canvas, 51 x 41.5cm). It’s probable one of them is Una’s husband, Eugene, who was an inveterate and expert chess player. According to family sources, the other player may be his brother, Tom.
Both figures in the painting look like one another. The same widow’s peaks and bushy eyebrows, similar indistinct mouths. Gesturally, they adopt the same pose, feet planted firmly apart, hands thoughtfully on chin, mirroring the doubleness of the game they play. They sport similar suits of clothes, though the player on the right goes tieless.
He looks like he’s just made a significant move – check? – while the player on the left is deep in thought, considering what to do next. Although they are static, the tension of the moment is implied in the set of their faces and in the hang of their clothes.
If it’s not the two brothers, perhaps it’s a portrait of Eugene playing himself, something which keen players often do. Eugene was a frequent correspondent to the chess column in the British Catholic weekly magazine, the Tablet, which set problems for aficionados.
His first novel, Murder in Three Moves (Allen Figgis, 1960) – under the barely disguised pseudoynm Rutherford Watters – featured Gadarene Blake “the most brilliant problemist (chess) in England” and was dedicated to D. M. Davey, the Tablet’s chess editor “master of many enigmas”.
The form of Una’s work mirrors the content – a concentrated study of concentration. The figures are crowded into the pictorial space; indeed, they seem barely to fit in, their backs hunched under the frame of the painting.
Such airlessness echoes the domestic interiors of the French painter Édouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940) who often crushed the women in his paintings (his mother and sister) into bent and uncomfortable positions, as if their house was literally bearing down on them.
In Interior: Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893), Vuillard’s sister is described in the MoMA catalogue, where the painting is held, as “pressing herself awkwardly against the wall, she bends her head and shoulders, apparently greeting a visitor but also, it seems, forced to bow if she is to fit in the picture’s frame”.https://images.app.goo.gl/NaGcWhUSzUxTqKoU8
The Game of Chess is, similarly, a psychological study. The players’ eyes are fixed on the board. Their identity and personal characteristics are not as important as the concentration they exhibit, and Una applies her artistic concentration to theirs. The colours are sombre and echo the duochromatic palette of the chess pieces (except for the pale blue collar of the tieless player). The floor is rendered in indistinct grid-like squares – a technique Una often used – mimicking very faintly the squares on the board. Otherwise, domestic detailing is at a minimum. The players sit on a pair of solid-looking, mid-century kitchen chairs at a small wooden table.
In this painting, the game’s the thing. The players’ closed-off expressions suggest it’s no game for them, but a serious intellectual challenge that is fully absorbing them.