A Royal Game

1943.47 © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

This large sculpture called ‘A Royal Game’ was conserved in 2014 before it was displayed in the museum. It was made by William Reynolds-Stephens (1862 to 1943), an American-born, award-winning goldsmith, painter and sculptor.

The sculpture has an interesting past and has been displayed at Buckland Abbey – the former home of Sir Francis Drake – for the past 20 years.

When it was made in 1906 it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London.

It’s made of plaster and is quite delicate.

A metal-coated version also exists and belongs to TATE Britain. By strange coincidence, they were also in the process of conserving theirs at the same time.

‘A Royal Game’ shows Queen Elizabeth I playing Philip II of Spain at chess.

It’s a metaphor for England’s war with Spain and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The chess pieces are shaped like galleons.

The Spanish Armada set sail in July 1588. A fleet of 130 ships headed for the English coast with the aim of overthrowing Elizabeth I and Tudor Protestantism.

Philip II had been co-monarch of England until 1558 when he had been married to Elizabeth’s half-sister, Queen Mary I. He was a devout Roman Catholic.

While waiting near Calais for commands the Armada was attacked and then driven up the East coast of England into the North Atlantic.

A large number of the boats were wrecked on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland in storms. When Phillip II was informed he said: “I sent the Armada against men, not God’s wind and waves.”

Royal Game conservation

© Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

When making the sculpture, Reynolds-Stephens tried to capture “Elizabeth’s character of self-assurance. Her left hand toying with a locket of St George and the Dragon to show her holding the destiny of England in her hand…. on the other hand I have shown Philip II in an attitude of grab…. I have noted his fanaticism for his Church by having held on to his Bishops at any cost and having taken hers….”

Bringing ‘A Royal Game’ back to the Museum and Art Gallery was a big logistical effort. Staff from our art department and front of house team supported Senior Conservator, Neil Wressell on the project. Once Neil had put the finishing touches to the sculpture, it remained on our landing for visitors to see until the museum closed for refurbishment in 2016.

Jo Clarke, Marketing and Programme Development Officer. This article was first published on 3 June 2014.