Wednesday 24 July 2019

From Naul to British Museum

Philip Gaffney with the chess set commissioned for the British Museum
Philip Gaffney with the chess set commissioned for the British Museum
One of the intricate chess pieces from the set

Ken Phelan

A master craftsman from Naul has secured a contract with The British Museum in London to reproduce one of the most iconic chess sets in the world - the twelfth century 'Isle of Lewis', discovered on the island of Lewis and Harris in 1831.

The commission marks great personal achievement and the highlight of a twenty six year career as craftsman.

Speaking to The Fingal Independent in the lead up to a display of his work at 'Flavours of Fingal' at Newbridge House last weekend, Philip Gaffney explained how he landed the commission, and how he even impressed a leading politician: 'I was doing a show in the RDS, and the Museum Association of America were over and had a look at some of my designs. They were taken aback by the quality of the work and were asking me where it was made. I told them it was my own work and they said to me 'this is better than what they have in the museum.' So they said it to The British Museum, and they came over to see me. We showed them how we made it and they were really impressed.

'When it was approved for The British Museum it meant a lot, because they would be the premier museum in the world. So for them to give me the contract, being just a lad from Dublin, it meant something special.

'I've been doing museum reproductions for thirty years; there's another Celtic game which dates from the fifty century, which is in the National History Museum in Dublin, and I've been reproducing that for the last twenty odd years. I do a lot of reproduction work, so I would be well regarded.

'I'd be well known in the museum community, that's why to get a contract with The British Museum is like a pinnacle.'

Over the years, Philip has designed chess sets for Martin Sheen, Maureen O'Hara, Disney, TV stations and even Calvin Klein, but said that having his work commissioned by The British Museum is what means most to him.

So meticulous is Philip in his work, that he has even reproduced imperfections held in the original priceless 'Isle of Lewis', adding an extra sense of authenticity.

There was one particular set which Philip was particularly proud of though, his own modest contribution to Ireland's Peace Process:

'I made a thirty two county chess board and I presented that set to John Hume a few years ago, or quite a few years ago now, when he was working on the Peace Process. I said to him, 'in chess, you have to be able to think twenty one moves ahead, because it's the combination of moves the pieces make, unlike politics, which is a little more complicated.' He just looked at me and smiled, and said 'Philip, you've no idea.'

Philip's 'Isle of Lewis' replica is now sold in The British Museum in London, though try as you may, you'd be hard pushed to tell it from the original.

Fingal Independent