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Antiques and Collecting: Magic image through the looking glass; Richard Edmonds reflects on the beauty, diversity, value and attraction of mirrors through the ages.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Mirrors have always had a curious fascination and some people - for example, furniture writer Margaret Jourdain, partner of the novelist, Ivy Compton-Burnett - collected them exclusively.

Jourdain's sitting room walls carried 22 mirrors at one point, and one can understand her passion for these beautiful things. It is well to remember that they are likely to be seen on many stands at next week's NEC Antiques Fair, where you may well find Chinese polished bronze mirrors, probably 1,000 years old, along with wall mirrors in gilt wood and mahogany not to mention the silver-backed hand mirrors used on dressing tables a century ago.

In this period of dark winter nights we can remember that in earlier times magic mirrors, connected to the occult constituted a serious part of any respectable conjurer's paraphernalia.

'Burn a candle, sprinkle into the flame powdered frog and skin from the thigh of a hanged-man and you will see the face of your bridegroom' - at least that is what the witches told young girls in the villages.

Dizzy from spinning around in front of the mirror, the girls believed anything. What they probably saw was the face of the conjurer himself cloudily shown in the darkness - but it was enough to quicken anticipation, especially if he was good-looking.

Shakespeare used magic mirrors to show the succession of the kings in Macbeth.

And when Catherine de Medici wished to know what would happen to her children in the future a magician had the Queen show the princes to him in a many-sided mirror, each child walking round the room as many times as he would eventually reign in terms of years.

Apparently, the Duke de Guise crossed before the mirror like a streak of greased lightning, while the Prince of Navarre 'took 22 turns about the room and disappeared'.

Mirrors during the 16th century were often used in conjunction with fine cabinet work. One device set mirrors inside a jewel casket.

When the faceted mirror-orb was spun round, the jewels in the walls of the casket multiplied a thousand-fold. At the same period, women wore mirrors enamelled in black with sombre agates set in the frame, dangling from their waists. These were mourning tokens for a departed loved one.

Leonardo Da Vinci thought mirrors could instruct an artist and used them in his studio. 'When you wish to see if your picture is exactly like the real thing, take a mirror, reflect the living model in it, and compare this reflection with your work - then see how near the original is to your copy.'

Leonardo's manuscripts contain a good deal of mirror-writing. At this period, during the Renaissance angels were thought of as the mirrors of Heaven, because of their perfection and purity.

Conversely a mirror in the hands of a medieval woman was perceived by the church as a definite symbol of sin. Pope John XX11 decreed 'the Devil can conceal himself in a reflecting mirror!' So what did the Pope use when he was shaving? There is no answer to that one.

If the 16th century was territorised by mirrors made from precious metals and crystals, we have to remember that the art of mirror-making was revolutionised when the Venetians discovered crystalline glass.

When it became possible to manufacture sheets of glass and larger sizes, the mirror ceased to be a mere trinket or table ornament and became a means of decoration.

It could be used on a wall or it could be hung like a painting. Several European countries struggled to establish glass industries (a Venetian - who turned out to be a thoroughly bad type - even set up a glasshouse in the wilds of Scotland - naturally, it failed).

But by 1663 England was declared to be supreme and a glass factory was set up in Vauxhall later to be eclipsed in the 18th century by the Bear Garden glasshouse in Southwark near where the Globe Theatre stands today.

Old glass was 'tinned' or silvered. The process seems to have been relatively simple. On a sheet of tin, the size of the glass plate, mercury was laid. The glass went on top having been previously polished with emery.

Afterwards the framer took over and in the 18th century glass frames were made by Hepplewhite, Sheraton or Chippendale. After the carving was completed - and Chinese landscapes were very popular - the gilder took over.

These are the fabulous mirrors which have become so valuable today and are sought after worldwide.

But mirrors of the best quality have never been cheap. Louis XIV spent 376,000 French livres on lavish glass mirrors between 1667 and 1695. All the private rooms at Versailles would have been well provided with them from hand-mirrors to the full-length variety.

The court at Versailles was conscious of display and personal appearance and would have demanded such things in their rooms.

Saint-Simon was Versailles's gossip columnist. From his diaries we can learn of the story of the Countess of Fiesco. 'Ah, Countess, where did you get that from,' said her friends? 'I had some wretched land which brought me nothing but wheat,' said the old aristo, 'so I sold it and bought this fine mirror. A mirror, instead of boring wheat. Have I not been very clever?'

When a general inventory of the Crown furniture was made at Versailles for Louis XIV, descriptions and details of construction techniques for more than 500 different kinds of mirror frames were found.

Some of the frames were in lapis-lazuli and silver, others were in tortoiseshell or carved ebony. Then there were frames in walnut, ebonised pearwood or carved gilded wood made in the form of classical landscapes.

Some frames had borders of rock crystal set off with blue Venetian glass lozenges. Numerous mirror plates had bevelled edges and caught the light from the candle sconces set into the frame itself.

It was probably Charles II who presented the fabulous silver-gilt Lennoxlove toilet service to Frances Stuart, duchess of Richmond and Lennox in 1672. Made in France, this 17-piece service was magnificent and its mirror was its crowning glory.

I saw this wonderful thing in Edinburgh a few years ago when I was performing a one man show on the Festival Fringe. I glimpsed my own face in Frances Stuart's mirror which was an uncanny experience.

Look out for English convex Regency mirrors at the fair. They normally carry a stag on top of the frame with a gold leaf ball and chain dangling over the mirror plate.

For myself I much prefer the small English mirrors of the 18th century, often framed in pearwood or mahogany. Hung in a corner of a dark room they reflect light from their old glass plates which must on no account be restored.

If you find the reflection broken up by silvering and blotchy stains, you must leave the glass alone since it is the mirror's way of letting you know that it is a very old person and must be treated with care. In any case, to put in a new glass takes away half the value.

Diaghilev, the great impresario of the Russian ballet reputedly had only antique Italian mirrors around him when he reached middle age.

The reason was simple, their blotched and crackled old surfaces reflected a much younger man. And that is something to ponder upon as you approach your next birthday.

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A grand Venetian glass 19th century mirror
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 6, 2001
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