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The Looking Glasses Of A Hundred Years (Part 1)

For most collectors of eighteenth-century antiques who possess artistic taste and the true collector's gift, old looking-glasses hold a fascination equaled only by the charm of the most graceful Georgian furniture. Strictly speaking, looking-glasses should not be classed as furniture, for while the various decorative periods are found exemplified in looking-glasses, their style development sometimes followed lines quite distinct from chairs, tables, and other movable furniture.I use the term looking-glasses advisedly, for I find some writers insisting that the term mirror was used in the seven teenth and eighteenth centuries almost exclusively to designate circular glasses-occasionally flat or concave, but usually convex-which are frequently called bull's-eye mirrors.

The first looking-glasses, like the first pictures, were fixed as wall panels, framed movable lookingglasses being an invention of the fifteenth century. They were not in common use until 1500, at the earliest-a date ascribed by some writers to the first looking-glass of this type.

The earliest looking-glasses were undoubtedly made in Venice, and early Venetian glasses are still to be found in museums. About 1670 they were made in Lambeth, England, probably by Venetian workmen. Mirror-making flourished in France during the seventeenth century. The glass was blown until 1688, when the lost Roman art of casting plates of glass was revived.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England the ladies carried small looking-glasses in fans, girdles, and special frames, and the beaux of the reigns of Elizabeth and James I had mirror brooches and snuff-boxes. These, however, have little to do with our present subject.

As with us, the old mirrors served a decorative as well as a utilitarian purpose-particularly all mantel mirrors-and beauty and fine workmanship in the frames were therefore an early and continuous development.

Of course the earliest glasses were very expensive, and could be owned only by the wealthy, so that existing examples are not common. The old English looking-glasses usually had a shallow, hand-ground beveling about an inch wide around the edge of the glass, known as Vauxhall plate. A few made about1740-1750 are found with glass frames, with gilt molding at the joints. Brass, ebony, carved oak, and olive-wood frames were made as early as 1700 Japanning and lacquer on frames, like that on some of the old clocks, became popular toward the close of the seventeenth century, and also later, about the middle of the eighteenth century. The f rames showed Chinese designs, usually in gilt or colors on black. Some frames were of carved wood, gilt or silvered.

The gilt frames of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were more durable than most of those made today. The gold was laid with glue sizing instead of the more modern oil and varnish. One advantage of the glue sizing was that two or more layers of gold could be laid on, resulting in a thicker coating of gold. Furthermore, the glue sizing became extremely hard with age.

During the time of James II (1685-1688) silver frames were in fashion, and during the reign of William III (1689-1702) we find Dutch marquetry on a light walnut ground.

The dates of old looking-glasses are not always easy to determine, but beginning with the reign of Queen Anne there are certain period characteristics which should be borne in mind. A very careful analysis of styles of eighteenth-century English looking-glasses has been made by Mr. Luke Vincent Lockwood in his "Colonial Furniture in America," and I must express my indebtedness to his investigations for some of the following data.

The looking-glasses of the time of Queen Anne ( 1702-1714) and George I (1714-1727) rank with the best furniture of the period in artistic quality and workmanship. They were simple and without extravagances of style, yet rich and beautiful. The frames were flat, with surfaces of sufficient breadth for veneering, and the grain of the wood was largely depended upon for the decorative effect. The walnut which was first used, however, proved to be too light for this simple treatment, so that mahogany later became more popular (1730).

The edges of these flat frames were cut into grace ful curves, the broken arch usually appearing at the top. Some of them ( 1720-1740) bore an urn shaped like a goblet-quite different from the Chippendale, Heppelwhite, and Adam urns of later periods. In other respects these Queen Anne frames resembled those of a similar type made in the Georgian period, so that these details should be carefully noted. Another Queen Anne urn was squat in shape-something like a small soup-tureen. Chippendale's characteristic urn was egg-shaped, and the more Classic forms of Heppelwhite and Adam appeared after 1775.

The later Queen Anne frames were also usually embellished with gilt ornaments at the sides, much like those of some Georgian frames, except that these were carved in wood, while the later ones were often molded in plaster and strung on wires.

The longer glasses of the early eighteenth century were sometimes made in two pieces, either to reduce the cost or because it was then impossible to make one piece large enough. Before 1750 one overlapped the other; later a molding was used to cover the intersection.

To sum up the distinctive characteristics of looking-glasses made from 1700 to 1750, look for two sections of glass without molding, the Queen Anne forms of urn and the gilt wooden ornaments. The form of a bird, generally a pheasant, was frequently used, usually depicted flying through a hole in the spandrel of the frame. This bird has in a great many cases been mistaken for an eagle. At least one of these characteristics is found in nearly all complete specimens.

The glasses in the mirrors of this period were curved or otherwise shaped at the top. Those of the Georgian period were square, though the tops of the frames often bore the broken arch. This is another point to look for.

From 1750 to 1780 was the period which may be termed, for our present purposes, Chippendale, as the type of design commonly used on mirror frames was the rich and graceful, but occasionally flamboyant, style cultivated by the great Georgian cabinet-maker. This was of a decided Louis XV type, with the characteristic waterfall motif. Chippendale often depicted fable subjects, such as the fox and the grapes, the stork and the pitcher, etc.


[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]




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