Early English Mirrors

Early English Mirrors: Reflections on a Golden Age

England 1660-1760

Since the beginning of time, man has contemplated his image, likely staring in pools of water, later in polished bits of metal (gold, silver, bronze or pewter). In England from the Restoration in 1660 when Charles II returned to England and George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, set up his celebrated works at Vauxhall with help of a company of Italian glassmakers. mirrors became popular although continental glass mirrors were known from the mid-15th century onward.

With the object of encouraging home production, the importation of mirrors was forbidden by the proclamation in 1664, and in the same year the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers was incorporated with its jurisdiction being confined to the city of London and seven miles around. The decorative possibilities of glass were quickly realized by those rich enough to exploit them. True Vauxhall plates from the last quarter of the 17th century rarely exceed 36” in length, as a point of interest and a fact that can be used in judgment of an early mirror’s authenticity. It is difficult to exhaust the list of materials used in the production of frames in the last quarter of the 17th century. They range from veneers of walnut, olive and laburnum to silver, chased and embossed . Marquetry, lacquer bead and needlework were common, while tortoise shell and ebony are also found.

Figure I shows a late 17th century gilt wood pier mirror of about 1690-1700, William &Mary period. By 1695 English glass had greatly improved in quality and in that year an excise tax of 20 percent was imposed on mirror plates. Glassmakers from all over the country protested the tax and it was reduced to 10 percent two years later and abolished altogether in 1699. From then until 1720, Vauxhall had strong competition from Bear Garden Glass House but regained its preeminence after 1720 and remained so for the next 60 years. In the last decade of the 17th century mirrors designed in relation to the paneling over mantelpieces were introduced, the frames being of walnut, lacquer, glass or of carved wood gilt. In addition to the long pier glasses that occupied spaces in between windows, (Figure I), a smaller type of hanging mirror was produced during the reigns of Queen Anne and George I. Figure II is such a mirror. These were comparatively square with a shaped cresting and base, the moldings and flat surfaces being decorated with fine gesso ornament. The edges of the cresting were carved with scallop shells, eagle heads and scrolling, while at the base, candle branches were invariably fixed to a small shaped plate.

From about 1725 the design of important mirrors was directly inspired by their architectural setting. This resulted in gilt wood or combinations of gilt woods and fields of veneered walnut as in Figure III,a gilt wood bird between broken arches at the crest with floral drapes at the sides and the base with scrolls. Oval mirrors also became popular at this time, affording greater scope for individual design.

Chippendale and the Chinese taste became dominant in the middle 18th century. In 1740, duty on glass, repealed in 1699, was re-enacted, and the mirror makers’ trade was seriously affected. At this time , plates were still made from blown cylinders of glass, but in 1773 a new process was adopted which facilitated the production of immensely tall pier glasses that became so fashionable in the last quarter of the 18th century. Figure IV shows an outstanding example of an oval mirror Circa 1760 carved with acanthus and flowers and a swan at the base, deeply carved and of the highest quality. Likely made to fit an architectural surrounding quite possibly with matching console table below or as a pair over two tables.

The range of design of mirrors of the period 1660-1760 was limited only by imagination and craftsmanship and the variations are never-ending.

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