Lancashire artist Olivia Pilling on creating luxury chess sets for iconic Purling London

Purling London Art Chess - Olivia Pilling

Purling London Art Chess - Olivia Pilling - Credit: Archant

A Lancashire artist has been commissioned to make luxury chess sets sold in Harrods. Barbara Waite reports

Olivia Pilling

Olivia Pilling - Credit: Archant

It was a smart move when a luxury brand decided to create chessmen which would delight not only players but fine art lovers too.

Chess is known as the game of kings and with luxury in mind London’s Purling company had the idea to contrast traditional hand-carved pieces with modern, abstract design. And Lancashire artist Olivia Pilling was one of only four people asked to produce four sets each.

Olivia, a former pupil at St Hilda’s RC High School in Burnley, first appeared in Lancashire Life in 2010 when she showcased her stunningly vibrant landscapes of the countryside around her childhood home on the moors near Todmorden. She now has a studio in Manchester.

Purling is renowned for high quality chess pieces and the concept was to create aesthetic sets which contrast traditional hand-carved Staunton pieces against modern abstract art and sell them through top London store Harrods and other high-end retailers.

Purling London Art Chess - Olivia Pilling

Purling London Art Chess - Olivia Pilling - Credit: Archant

Olivia, famous for striking semi-abstract acrylic paintings in jewel colours that shimmer with light, was approached by the creator of Purling to design the Art Chess sets, which can sell for up to £4,995.

She said: ‘He knew of my work and although I’m primarily a figurative painter, I like to use paint in an abstracted way, making marks with the paint and layering it.

Most Read

‘It was that which drew him to my work and the bright luminosity colour I use. He could see that the way I handle the paint and the tones would work well on for his concept of Art Chess.’

The chess sets had a fantastic response when launched and more artists have since come on board. Even the current world champion Magnus Carlsen has played with one. Olivia’s sets sold out and she was asked to make some more which went on sale recently.

Work in progress

Work in progress - Credit: Archant

‘I’ve always had a love for Russian folk art, and particularly focused on that when I was doing my Fine Art degree at Nottingham Trent,’ explained Olivia. ‘And I found myself going back to it for inspiration as I have a fascination with the way ordinary objects are transformed into beautiful precious objects, such as lacquer boxes and other household objects.

‘The chess pieces are solid Staunton pieces, which is a very classical design that stays true to chess heritage. Each piece is painted by hand, making them mini individual pieces of art. The juxtaposition between the traditional and the modern paint effect adds an interesting twist.’

The process is quite involved. The pieces are first primed to create a smooth surface to work on and as a painter Olivia wanted to stay true to her work on canvas and used a familiar palette of colours.

‘Cool blues, emerald greens, rich oranges and reds and deep purples are what I decided to use,’ she said. ‘I wanted each piece to be a little treasure, each a gem stone glistening in its own right.

‘I use acrylic paint as it is a robust medium, and luckily it is what I work with already when working on canvas. Once painted, the pieces are coated in a layer of resin. This gives them a fantastic gloss finish making the colours pop, and it also protects them when they are played with.’

You can see more of Olivia’s work on canvas in an exhibition called The North starting on October 3 at Collect Art Gallery in Lymm, Cheshire. You can find out more at her website For details for the chess sets see