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antiques: Mirror, mirror, on anyone's wall.

Byline: Christopher Proudlove

WHY do so many antique mirrors come from France? It's a question I put to Christopher Gower, an antique dealer who specialises in English and Continental mirrors. He reckoned the answer is simple: "Because the French aristocracy were a vulgar, self-preening bunch of show-offs. They were so keen on their appearance that mirrors were even built into the walls of their homes."

So there you have it, and perhaps we're all guilty of the same kind of vanity Four thousand years ago, Mexican natives spent many hours vigorously polishing a form of black volcanic residue called obsidian with properties similar to glass, in order to admire themselves in the reflection.

But there's more to it than that. Large wall mirrors were carefully sited in grand homes to illuminate a room with reflected natural light or the candlelight from chandeliers and wall lights.

Consequently mirrors quickly became decorative objects in their own right, the frames designed by leading cabinetmakers whose styles were influenced by every passing trend. It was not until the late 19th century that production declined with the arrival of gas and electricity.

In recent years, the widespread availability of inexpensive reproduction period mirrors has caused a surge of interest in antique mirrors in all shapes and styles from every period.

Dealers like Christopher Gower have imported large numbers of French mirrors, relatively common across the Channel, to sell to private collectors in the UK and to Americans, particularly from the southern states, who prefer the rich, decorative French style.

"Today mirrors are a decorative necessity for anyone furnishing their home in true period style," Mr Gower said. "A mirror makes a room - it reflects light and creates more space. It becomes an important focal point."

Polished gold, silver and bronze was first used to produce reflective mirrors in around 3000 BC. In 250 BC, Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, is reputed to have set fire to the Roman fleet by using a mirror to deflect the sun's rays.

In the 14th century mirrors were made by the glassblower blowing a bulb that, while still hot, was filled through the blowing pipe with a mixture of metals such as lead, antimony and tin. After cooling, the bulbs were sliced to form small, hollow convex mirrors.

By the 15th century the Venetian island of Murano became established as the European centre for glassmaking with mirrors at the top of their achievements. They were made from a bubble of glass that was rolled into a sausage-shaped cylinder which was then sliced down its length and rolled flat on a stone. The mirror effect was made by backing one side with an amalgam of mercury and tinfoil.

However, this method was expensive and produced mirrors of limited sizes. In 1680, the cost of a three by four foot mirror was approximately pounds 20,000 in today's currency but the demand existed among the wealthy Despite the best efforts to keep their skills secret, Murano expertise spread across Europe, in England concentrated on the famous works at Vauxhall and Smethwick.

In 1687, the Frenchman Bernard Perrot invented the casting method, using molten glass poured on to a flat metal plate.

This process allowed larger mirrors to be produced but this method of manufacture was not available generally until the 18th century

After laborious grinding and polishing, which requiring hours of skilled labour, the glass had to be backed to make it reflective, a process called silvering.

A meticulously hammered sheet of tin was covered with mercury and the glass laid down on it and weighted to remove any excess mercury After being allowed to dry for up to three weeks, with luck and skill, the resulting mirror was formed without spots or blemishes.

This method of silvering continued until 1835 when the German chemist, Justus von Liebig, invented a new way of backing mirrors by depositing a thin film of real silver, much to the delight of mirror makers whose numbers were constantly being depleted by death from mercury poisoning.

English carvers such as Grinling Gibbons applied themselves to producing elaborate frames, matching, if not exceeding, the work of their Dutch counterparts known for their carved picture frames. Woods such as walnut and limewood were carved with extraordinary lightness of touch, delicacy and movement.

Large wall mirrors from the period often have two or more pieces of glass, while frames are generally elaborately carved and gilded. Huge pier glasses - long slim mirrors intended to hang on the wall between two tall windows and often echoing their shape - date from this period, many with girandoles for candles.

Gilded frames were extremely popular. Tissue-thin sheets of 24-carat gold were applied to a prepared wooden frame covered in gesso, a chalk-like substance, and then polished and burnished.

Gilt frames became a decorative opportunity for designers such as William Kent who combined flat veneered surfaces with gilded embellishments - a process known as parcel gilding - while craftsmen and designers such as William and John Linnell, Mathias Lock and Thomas Chippendale were increasingly influenced by ideas from abroad.

In pre-Revolutionary France, where the aristocracy was far more extensive than in England, mirrors were made in profusion and the French influence was acute. Inspiration also came from farther afield. Chippendale's frames were often heavily embellished with rococo foliage and Chinese ho-ho birds, with Gothic tracery or sometimes with chinoiserie figures.

Today, good examples can fetch pounds 20,000 or more, depending on condition, and a pair will often make three or four times this figure.

At the end of the 18th century Thomas Adam and George Hepplewhite did much to spread the fashion for the neo-classical style. Frames appeared with decorative urns, crisp scrolls and delicate floral swagging.

In early 19th century the design of the convex mirror was influenced by the growth of anti-French feeling.

The British aristocracy full of patriotic pride after the achievements of Nelson and the defeat of Napoleon, emphatically rejected French design.

Never popular in France, convex glass had been around for some time, and to meet the demands of the aristocracy designers surrounded it with a round frame often surmounted by an eagle with outspread wings. This symbol of victory and strength often featured a ball and chain hanging from its beak symbolising freedom. Such mirrors, in undamaged condition, are a rare find today

Famous explorers also influenced art and design. People were fascinated by the drawings of exotic places made famous by the pioneering exploits of travellers, so a penchant developed for frames depicting the heads of pharaohs and Greek and Roman scenes, which can often be seen in the panels above triple plate mirrors.

The decoration on the panels was moulded in a putty-like material called composition. This was pressed into moulds made from wooden blocks and carved in reverse.

The use of composition became widespread in Victorian times and allowed frames to be decorated quickly and ornately but inexpensively Combined with improvements in glassmaking technology it enabled manufacturers to meet the rapidly increasing demand created by an expanding middle class.

In the middle of the 19th century the arch or domed top overmantel mirror, made to go above imposing fireplaces, became popular, usually featuring plain, not bevelled glass, and often decorated with ball pendants and carved figures.

Triple plate mirrors in the Regency style also enjoyed a resurgence. An original late 18th or early 19th century example may sell for pounds 2,000, although later copies dating from the end of the Victorian period should cost considerably less.

"People usually choose a particular mirror because of its frame", said Christopher Gower. "If a good frame surrounds a badly marked mirror, full of grey specks where the backing has worn, it is worth having the mirror re-silvered."

Frames, too, often require restoration. Ornate gilt frames with much embellishment are easily damaged. But broken or cracked moulding can be repaired and re-gilded with gold leaf by an expert.

CHRISTOPHER GOWER runs Ashton Gower Antiques, in Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire, telephone 01451 8706.

With luck and skill, the mirror was formed without blemishes

An armsless military site JUST as some police forces are using an online auction website to dispose of unclaimed property (as reported here) so the Ministry of Defence is getting in on the act. If you're in the market for "his and hers" military uniforms, sleeping bags, tents, a Green Goddess and other vintage vehicles or even a Jaguar GRI Single Seat All Weather attack aircraft then is the place to go.

The Disposal Sales Agency, which is part of the MoD, works to dispose of surplus equipment on behalf of a number of government departments. No weapons or ammunition can be sold on the website, and some items can only be sold to registered users.

Clearly the site is popular. When I logged on this week (there's a rather handy armoured Range Rover up for grabs) I got the following message: "The site is experiencing high levels of demand at present. Please try later."

This little piggy went to market

THE Queen Mother, God bless her, was a famous collector of the Scottish Wemyss (pronounced Weems) pottery and she would have liked this large seated pig decorated in typical but eccentric style with cabbage roses. From a private home in Rhyl, North Wales, the pig is one of the star lots in Colwyn Bay auctioneers Rogers Jones monthly auction next Tuesday (Feb 27). What makes the creature even more desirable is the fact that it is signed "Nekola".

Robert Methven Heron inherited the Fife Pottery of Kirkcaldy and beganmaking the attractive and sought after Wemyss Ware in 1882. It was named in honour of the Grosvenor family from the nearby Wemyss Castle who were early patrons. Heron was keen on continental pottery and persuaded a number of potters tomove to Scotland to help him. The Bohemian Karel Nekola was one of them. He became Heron's master painter and his innovative designs met with instant success.

When the Fife Pottery closed in the 1930s, the rights to Wemyss were bought by the Bovey Pottery in Devon and Nekola's son, Joseph, himself an able designer, moved there to carry on producing the ware and to train apprentices.

Rogers Jones' pig is estimated at pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500. Watch it fly. Telephone 01492 532176.


The original mirrors were cut from globes of blown glass or rolled out and cut tubes. They were very expensive; The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, above, shows the pinnacle of French mirror magic; One of a pair of Chippendale revival carved giltwood overmantle mirrors which date from circa 1830. Estimate pounds 30,000-pounds 50,000; One of a pair of George III carved giltwood wall mirrors, circa 1760, in the manner of Thomas Johnson, estimate pounds 60,000-pounds 80,000
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 24, 2007
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