The Mother-of-Pearl Gaming Set of Princess Sophia, Daughter of George III
Canton (Guangdong), China
dimensions of main box – width: 29cm,
length: 29.8cm, height: 8.5cm
This set of gaming counters might well be without peer – it is exceptional. Commissioned for England’s Princess Sophia (1777-1848), the twelfth child of King George III and Queen Charlotte, each mother-of-pearl counter, the cover of the accompanying lacquer box and the covers of each of the internal five lacquer boxes are decorated with the cipher of Princess Sophia – a single large ‘S’ beneath a crown to denote her royalty.
The set comprises 118 counters – 64 long rectangular counters, 36 circular counters and 18 oblong counters. The counters themselves are unusually thick – a sign of their exceptional quality. Most full sets are believed to have 140 counters: usually 20 round counters, 40 squares, and 80 oblongs. This set does not follow this mix. It might also be short of the full number. It is difficult to be certain as variations did occur. In any event, very few full sets remain intact today (Neal, 1997).
On one side within a fine floral border, each counter is carved in low relief but at multiple levels to give each typically Chinese scene, stunning depth. Importantly the scene on each of the 118 counters is different. On the other side, is the Princess’ cipher within a hatched medallion on a ground of yet more Chinese scenes (again all different) and within a fine floral border. The sides of each are finely serrated.
Together, the set comprises no less than 236 individual Chinese scenes all carved meticulously in mother-of-pearl.
The counters are contained within five lidded counter boxes finished in black lacquer decorated with the princess’ cipher in gilt and with a simulated shagreen ground. The five fit tightly within one overall lidded box similarly decorated.
The counters and internal boxes are in near perfect condition. The overall box has some shrinkage-related cracking to the lacquerwork on the top surface. Undoubtedly this could be restored but we have left this to the discretion of the future owner.
The set is accompanied by an old, handwritten note found in the box which says ‘
This case with counters and boxes was left by Princess Sofia [sic] to her sister Mary. Duchess of Gloucester and by her to George, Duke of Cambridge‘.
Princess Sophia was one of fifteen children born to King George III and Queen Charlotte. She was sister to the Prince Regent who was later King George IV. Largely sequestered from the opposite sex she and her sisters were destined to live out lives of relative indolence, hence the need for elaborate gaming sets no doubt to relieve the boredom of their royal isolation. Sophia never married and is believed, however, to have given birth to a son out of wedlock after a concealed pregnancy. The likely father was an equerry, General Thomas Garth, although rumours at the time also suggested one of Sophia’s own brothers as a possible father. In later years, she lived in the household of Princess (later Queen) Victoria at Kensington Palace.
Mother-of-pearl gaming counters for the European market first were produced in Canton (Guangdong), China in the early eighteenth century. Sets were either commissioned or bespoke sets and ready-made sets. Commissioned sets, such as the set here, typically were carved with armorial emblems. Importantly, the wealthy European families that ordered them very often also ordered sets of matching armorial porcelain services at the same time. Production of mother-of-pearl gaming sets had largely stopped by 1840 as card games became more fashionable in Europe.
Neal, B., Chinese Mother of Pearl Gaming Counters, 2007.
Princess Sophia; Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, and thence by descent; UK private collection.
Inventory no.: 1483
An engraving of Princess Sophia published in 1808.
This handwritten note is included in the set.
The images below show each of the counters – first the fronts and then the reverse sides with the Princess’ cipher. After this, there are more images of the lacquer boxes that hold the counters.