The Games Room: Checkmate
On the staircase at Arniston House in Midlothian hangs a large double portrait which perfectly captures the intimacy of evening pursuits in a Georgian country house. The 1812 painting, by Sir Henry Raeburn, shows a couple playing chess. It is a moment of triumph for Eliza Dundas, on the right, wife of General Francis Dundas, on the left, as she deftly removes her husband’s queen. Chess, which originated in India, enjoyed a surge in popularity from the seventeenth century onwards, played by gentlemen in the new coffee houses and by families at home.
The Dundas family were active in Georgian Britain’s global expansion and appropriately, the ivory chess set in the portrait was probably made in India and brought back to Britain through the East India trade. Francis met and married Eliza while he was acting Governor of Cape Colony, South Africa, in 1800; her father was the colony’s chaplain. Meanwhile, his brother Philip was Governor of Prince of Wales Island in modern Malaysia. The portrait was probably commissioned to mark Francis’ promotion to General, when he was attached to the Glasgow Highland Light Infantry, then engaged in the Peninsula War. It is likely that he would have returned to the family home at Arniston for precious moments of leave.
The house, a fine neo-classical mansion designed by William Adam, had been built by his father in 1724 and was home to his brother Robert, Scotland’s Lord Advocate. The house was a perfect refuge for the expatriate Dundases and chess an ideal relaxation for a military man.
Arniston House is free to members of Historic Houses