Dictionary of English Pieces - Mirrors


The first mirrors to be used in England were flat plates of highly polished metal-called 'steel', but actually an alloy of copper and tin-they were of small size and very heavy. Venice had a monopoly of making mirror- glass, and it was exported from there to the rest of Europe. In the seventeenih century Venetian workers began to make it in England, and the use of glass mirrors for personal use and for decoration became widespread. At first they were framed in a similar manner to paintings, and it is difficult to decide whether a seventeenth-century frame was made for a picture or a mirror. Those known as 'cushion-shaped', with a deep rounded edge, veneered with walnut, carved, inlaid with marquetry or lacquered, were among the earliest made.

By the end of the century, very large mirrors had become fashionable. There was a limit to the size of a sheet of glass that could then be made, so a frame was filled sometimes with more than one sheet, and often bordered with a number of smaller ones. The mantelpiece in the principal room of a mansion would have a large mirror over it, and these overmantel mirrors were sometimes framed in walnut and gilt wood; the frame also incorpora - ting an oil painting and filling the entire space above the fireplace. Overmantel mirrors continued to be made, and their styles followed those of wall mirrors down the years.

During the reigns of Queen Anne and George I, many small mirror-frames were made, and these were veneered with walnut sometimes enriched with gilt carving. Many of them survive today, but the greater proportion of so-called Queen Anne mirrors are little more than thirty years old. Gilding continued in fashion, and mirrors appeared in frames of pinewood brightly gilt and carved flatly in gesso-a type of plaster composition which could be carved and smoothed and took the gold-leaf in a satisfactory manner. By 1735-40 taste had changed once more, and large mirrors of severe design with tall rectangular glasses were appearing on fashionable walls.

Mirror frames were the object of great attention from carvers and gilders throughout the eighteenth century; the most elaborate examples of their work came in the middle years. Then, fashion allowed them to incorporate what they pleased on the frame: shepherds and shepherdesses, Chinese gods, waterfalls, sea-shells, ruined temples and bouquets of flowers vie for attention on some of the extreme examples, which are masterpieces of the carver's art. Following these exuberances, came the more restrained style set by the Adam brothers. Frames were then often oval in shape, and embellished with honeysuckle, husks and winged seated griffins. At the end of the eighteenth century, the frame was even more plain, and the most popular ones had the glass flanked by a column at either side, and sometimes with a painting on glass at the top.

Although it had been known for many hundreds of years, the circular convex mirror was not widely popular until early in the nineteenth century, when many examples were made. Most of them had a moulding of ebony surrounding the glass, a deeply moulded gilt frame decorated with gilt balls, and an eagle with outstretched wings at the top. The eagle often holds a chain with a gilt ball at the end of it, and many of the mirrors have arms for holding candles, the best examples fitted with hanging cut-glass drops. Small mirrors on stands for use on the dressing table-toilet mirrors-were framed in silver, and often with needlework. Those supported on uprights and a base fitted with drawers were introduced about 1700. Many were veneered with walnut, or lacquered. Mahogany examples, of late eighteenth-century date, are often inlaid and fitted with oval or shield-shaped mirrors. In about 1800, the mirror became oblong in shape, horizontal instead of upright, due 10 changing fashions in hairdressing, and the uprights supporting it were turned instead of square or moulded. About 1790, cheval mirrors, large dressing mirrors and movable stands with casters, came into use. Most of them have frames of mahogany, but sometimes they are of rosewood or satinwood.

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