The game is a foot

Bruce Wendel Furniture & Decorative Arts

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2013.

In this Connecticut household, the game’s the thing. Behind the front door of the large stately house lies an unexpected and dazzling world of color and geometry. Displayed throughout the interior and arranged from floor to ceiling are almost 250 hand¬made game boards of various types, sizes, and patterns. But the promise of hours of family fun is strictly for the eyes: these game boards have been retired from active duty.

  • Fig. 1. The double-height living room in the Connecticut residence of Bruce and Doranna Wendel provides a vast canvas for the dramatic display of their game board collection. Among the furnishings ranged around the room are a continuous-arm brace-back Windsor chair attributed to John Sprosen (active 1783-1798), an Italian armchair c. 1850, and a late nineteenth-century chess or checkerboard table.
  • Fig. 2. One of the Wendels’ most significant boards is this early nineteenth-century example that appears to have a maritime, possibly Cape Cod, origin. Meandering lines seem to trace ocean-going trade routes around the world, interspersed with such marine motifs as a whaling scene, a lighthouse, and compass points; an impressive castle at the center is clearly the goal.
  • Fig. 3. The game boards are displayed wall-hung as two-dimensional art, freestanding (as a large sculptural gaming wheel), and as furniture, in the form of a chess or checkerboard table. Above the fireplace hangs a portrait by Emma Fordyce Macrae (1887-1974), one of the Philadelphia Ten group of women artists who exhibited together annually from 1917 to 1945. On the mantel are a beautifully articulated wood Statue of Liberty signed “P. Roselli” and dated 1922; a small bronze by Doranna Wendel’s father, Herzl Emanuel (1914-2002); an unusual Zuni olla with white and black decoration on a red background, c. 1900; and a pair of painted wood Indian exercise clubs.
  • Fig. 4. The Wendels have brought order to the visual clamor of their artworks and other objects by creating a main focus on each wall in the vast living room. Here, a large painted Germanic kas, or wardrobe, inscribed and dated 1746, anchors a display of Parcheesi and other boards. The strong vertical moldings and applied medallions embellished with rayed stars on the doors of the kas echo motifs in the boards above.
  • Fig. 5. A fascinating 1907 color-system sphere based on the theories of Albert H. Munsell (1858-1918) sits on top of a nineteenth-century southern chest of drawers inlaid with rayed sunflowers and other motifs. The round form and gridded colors of the sphere suggest a third dimension to the circular designs on the boards that hang above; it also calls across the room to the board the Wendels call “Colorforms” (see Fig. 6, right).
  • Fig. 6. The minimalism and abstraction of some Parcheesi boards have inspired the Wendels to consider their best examples works of modern art. They liken these two masterful c. 1880 examples, for instance, to the work of Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940).
  • Fig. 7. The “home” square on Parcheesi boards was a prime spot for makers to individualize a game board. The elaborate brick residence in the center of the rare marquetry example on the left is composed of innumerable individual rectangles of wood. The board on the right, found in Peru, Vermont, is one of the collectors’ favorites; based on the scenic painting in the home square and the fine line work they believe it is one of their earliest, possibly made between 1825 and 1840.
  • Fig. 8. A large double portrait by Sturtevant J. Hamblin (1817-1884) occupies a place of honor over the mantel in the den. On the mantel shelf is a carved ram from Pennsylvania, c. 1890, possibly a child’s stool (ex-Stewart E. Gregory collection). In this room, too, is a carved eagle with deeply notched and colored wings and scored body by the Pennsylvania German folk artist Wilhelm Schimmel (1817-1890). A small knife in a wooden carrying case that descended with the eagle is purported to be Schimmel’s own carving tool.
  • Fig. 9. The breakfast room holds some of Doranna’s personal collections, as well as game boards. She affectionately calls the owl on a broom weathervane attributed to the J. W. Fiske foundry, c. 1895-1900, her “boyfriend.” A similar form is illustrated in the company’s 1893 catalogue. A small wall-hung cupboard holds children’s Staffordshire alphabet mugs, while a parade of tiny carved animals marches toward Noah’s Arks on the built-in shelves of the opposite wall.
  • Fig. 10. In the second-floor stair hall a group of Chinese checkerboards forms a tongue-in-cheek vignette with an array of antique Chinese decorative arts arranged on a nineteenth-century Qing dynasty lacquered and gold-leafed storage chest.
  • Fig. 11. Part of the couple’s discerning collection of Acoma, Hopi, and Zuni pottery, c. 1875-1920, is displayed in built-in bookcases in the office. The strong graphic elements on the pots play dynamically against the lines of a Pennsylvania sack-back Windsor armchair, c. 1770. Bruce Wendel says his favorite piece is not actually a game board, but the tabletop (hung on the wall to the left of the door) painted to resemble a playing card-the king of clubs. He compares the expressionistic rendering to the work of the French artist Georges Roualt (1871-1958). Another departure is a c. 1900 carnival ball-toss game that cuts a dapper figure in the glass-paned doorway.
  • Fig. 12. Most game boards are of a size that conforms to comfortable tabletop play. Occasionally the Wendels have come across miniature boards that may or may not have been intended for actual use, such as the ones below. The framed example on the right, with elegant Spencerian calligraphy and birds and patriotic motifs around the miniature checkerboard, appears to have been made for show. Two atypical checkerboards show signs of wear despite their small size. The one in the foreground is an unusual horizontal-format board decorated with stenciled elements associated with home and community: trees, houses, windows, doors, and animals. The diminutive board in back is particularly bright and bold in its painted decoration.
  • Fig. 14. The dice and playing pieces made to accompany American board games rarely survive. However, occasionally a game will turn up that is fully intact, such as the commercially produced Parcheesi game with a separate box containing dice, wood playing pieces, and cardboard shakers, c. 1870-1880.
  • Fig. 13. The Wendels also have a variety of pre-pinball tabletop games. In eighteenth-century France these games were played with cue sticks and were known as bagatelles. By the 1870s the now-familiar spring-loading mechanism was introduced to shoot the marble and they came to also be known as marble games. Photograph by Carter Read.

If you ask the genial homeowners, Bruce and Doranna Wendel, what they collect, they answer in unison, “Art.” Although they both recognize the playful nature of the collection they have assembled, the couple considers their game boards examples of modern art. Take for instance the abstract masterpiece of brilliantly colored circles and rectangles on a plain black and incised board that they have dubbed “Colorforms,” after the classic 1950s toy of die-cut adhesive vinyl shapes (see Fig. 6). Hanging high on the wall, almost at the ceiling, the visual impact is powerful-and quite unrelated to its function as a Parcheesi board.

Bruce Wendel was excited about antiques from a young age, attending shows and auctions with his European-born parents as the designated family curator with an interest in art nouveau furniture and art glass, particularly Tiffany. Doranna Wendel is the daughter of an artist and a fashion model and was raised in Connecticut and Rome. She is a diminutive dynamo of creative energy; he is round-eyed, mellow, and expansive. Fittingly, they met in an antiques shop where Doranna was working at the time, and they married in 1981. Although Bruce seriously considered going into the antiques business after high school rather than attending college, he knew it would devastate his parents. He continued on to law school, becoming a successful legal counsel for the pharmaceutical industry. This occasioned four major moves for his and Doranna’s growing family: to Indiana, New Jersey, Florida, and California, before recently returning to Connecticut.

The Wendels still have the first board they purchased, a Mill game that Bruce describes as “Frank Lloyd Wright-ish” in its linearity. It is one of several Mill games they now own, although Bruce estimates that probably some 65 percent of their boards are for playing Parcheesi. He spins around the room and darts up ladders, pointing out seemingly unique and disparate abstract “paintings” that are all Parcheesi boards: squares, circles, rectangles; plays of dark and light, color and pattern. But all have the “home” center square that gives the game away.

One such square features the portrait of a dog (a family’s loyal pet perhaps?), another a naturalistic painting of a homestead, rather than the word itself. The sheer variety of Parcheesi board patterns suggests an interesting visual relationship to similar geometric permutations in pieced quilts of the late nineteenth century. In fact, a conventional Parcheesi board might be described as a combination of a Nine-Patch quilt with a circular motif in each corner and a Log Cabin quilt with its rectangular logs that lap around a center hearth-or home-square. Parcheesi is one of the world’s oldest games. Known as a cross-and-circle game because of its cruciform design, it is derived from Pachisi, invented in India around the fourth century ad. Its roots in the United States are less clear; the game was being played on handmade boards by the 1850s, but was patented in the late 1860s. The rights were sold to E. G. Selchow and Company of New York, which trademarked and published the game in 1870.

The preponderance of highly colored and unusual Parcheesi boards in the Wendel collection is not indicative of the general production; the couple has spent forty years seeking unusual examples because of their inherent artistry and seemingly infinite iterations.

The history of American board games began in earnest in the 1820s with the emergence of a strong middle class and the notion of the nuclear family. At the same time that the home became a man’s castle, it also became his rook, his pawn, and his bishop. Board games became a means of engaging the entire family in a domestic activity that inculcated basic strategic thinking and friendly competition, and that reinforced moral codes. The Mansion of Happiness, for instance, taught that material success and domestic happiness were achieved through ethical decision-making. The path around the board was fraught with forks in life’s path; choose wisely and you prospered, choose poorly and you sank into vice.

The lack of standardization evident in the games in the Wendel collection emphasizes that most boards were homemade through much of the nineteenth century, allowing a high level of creative expression and individual interpretation. The Wendels seek this idiosyncratic approach to the art of the game. They are far less attracted to the highly refined and ornamental Victorian game boards and are drawn instead to bold personal statements; one example even shouts an evangelical message, “Love God.” They also respond to evidence of wear; the abraded surfaces and splits in a board become part of its history, charm, and texture. “We prefer the ones that show their age,” Bruce explains. He surmises that the earlier boards hail primarily from the Midwest and Northeast, and also Canada-regions with long cold winters.

Bruce and Doranna delight in unpredictable juxtapositions and use the informality of their collection as a counterpoint to the formal architecture of their house. On the way up a wide, winding staircase and set into a deep window recess, is a trio of family portraits cast in bronze by Doranna’s father, the sculptor Herzl Emanuel, including one of Doranna as a girl. From this second-story vantage one enjoys the cathedral-height walls of the light-filled living room, and the interplay between the natural beauty of the landscape glimpsed through an arcade of mullioned, arched windows and the drama of the game boards interspersed in all the available spaces above and around these interventions.

In addition to the Parcheesi boards, the collection comprises checkerboards and the related game of draughts, Ludo, Chinese checkers, and Mill games, as well as the Noble Game of the Swan, Trip Around the World (one example is hand-lettered with moves such as “loose [sic] one day”), and a recently acquired hand-painted Chutes and Ladders. One board that is unique in Bruce’s experience is an eye-grabbing 1880s honey¬comb-pattern board for playing Agon, a game that was popular in Victorian England, and usually seen as a published board in America. The Wendels also have an impressive selection of amusement park ball tosses, and large gaming wheels and wheels of fortune.

Among the rare finds is a forbidding Masonic checkerboard that features a border of skulls and crossbones and corner blocks replete with Masonic symbols. It hangs over a Ouija-board-like fortune-telling game that contains a glazed window protecting a fragile notepaper that is set next to the playing board marked with coordinates of numbers and letters. The lines of writing, penned in a faded spidery script, pose questions: Will my friend be true in his dealings? Shall I have to live in foreign parts? Will the marriage be prosperous?

In 1984 the Wendels organized the exhibition Winning Moves: Painted Gameboards of North America at what was then called the Museum of American Folk Art. Including forty or so of their own boards and examples from other collections, the project granted them an opportunity to research the history of game boards in North America. Since that time their collection has more than doubled, their knowledge has deepened, and the rules of the game have changed. When they started, it was a laborious process of phone calls, letters, and ads. Few, if any, people were collecting handmade painted and incised game boards. Bruce recalls with amusement that the first postcards he sent to dealers in the 1980s reaped an unanticipated result. To his queries about game boards he instead received “gameboards”-slabs of wood with iron hooks to hold the carcasses of felled game animals. Today the hunt is easier, though no less intense. Deep into the night he hovers over his computer, relentlessly search¬ing the Internet for game boards. When he first started it might be months between “sightings.” Now, with the advent of and other such sites, barely a week passes without a packing carton appearing on the front steps, and his challenge is finding new search words to input for results.

Today Bruce and Doranna live with their Shar-Pei Theo and their parrot Pippo, who sings all day long. It is a quirky, happy household-just what a house of games should be.