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One reason why a Chippendale style of mirror may fit in well with eighteenth century furniture from Italy or France is that this decorative form and rather florid style of carving was a reflection of designs current in both of those countries about that time. Chippendale, we know, was influenced in his designs by the French. Makers of Venetian looking-glasses of the middle of the century or a little earlier employed carved tracery to mark divisions of the glass; they also used a carved and pierced frame. Italian and French cabinetmakers were constantly influencing each other as well as the English craftsmen.
Many of the fine mirrors in the Chippendale style found in this country are of English make. The skill required to carve one of these more elaborate frames was rare in the Colonies before the Revolution, and patrons who could pay the relatively high price for a mirror of this kind were not many. In those days, too, the well-to-do people imported much of their best furniture, having their agents in London order direct from the noted cabinetmakers.
The Colonial carver of frames could, of course, avail himself of the designs that Chippendale published and no doubt many of the simpler mirrors in the Chippendale tradition were made in this country, although the glass was imported. From the middle of the century on there was a growing number of woodcarvers in America trained in English shops who could do creditable work. In New York, Stephen Dwight, who had his place of business between "the Ferry Stairs and Burling Slip," in 1755 advertised that he carved picture and looking-glass frames. Mirror glass was so valuable in those days that framemakers would alter one's old-fashioned frames and bring them up to date "gilt in oil or burnished gold, equal to the best imported."
Chippendale mirrors run the gamut from most elaborate fantasies in carved wood to some very simple examples. His finest and most characteristic ones were made up of many pieces of mirror glass divided by delicate tracery of carved wood in the form of slender scrolls, garlands, columns and bits of curiously carved moldings. The tops and bottoms of his looking-glasses carried elaborate ornamentation made up of urns, sprays of leaves and flowers, and complicated arrangements of scrolls of which the "C" scroll -used a great deal by Chippendale in all his carved work -was a feature.
But other mirrors that may be treasured as in the Chippendale manner were possibly carved by Matthias Lock, who advertised that he would make mirrors at his shop "Near Ye Swan, Tottenham Court Road," in London, as K. Warren Clouston notes. Thomas Johnson at the "Golden Boy" in Grafton Street was another carver and frame maker. He really outdid Chippendale in the variety of flowers, birds and animals known and unknown that he incorporated into his carvings. Copeland, and the firm of Edwards & Darley were other cabinetmakers whose mirrors were well known in the middle of the eighteenth century.
Characteristic also of Chippendale mirrors was the motif of falling water, found not only in the natural setting of a cascade pouring from a fountain or flowing out from under an old stone bridge, but also used as a decorative detail appended to almost any part of his foliated scrolls. In pier glasses Chippendale carved tiny scenes in the gilded wood of quaintly costumed figures of courtiers and maids idling under old trees, with ruined columns and broken arches in the background.
Most of Chippendale's carving for mirrors was done in pine, heavily gilded, the prominent parts burnished. The decorative effect of small sections of mirrors separated from one another by narrow moldings carved into a deceptive thinness was the result of necessity and not of art. Mirror glass, coming mainly from France and the English Vauxhall works, was hard to get in large pieces. As time went on this lack was apparently remedied, for we find Chippendale making large pier glasses of single sheets of glass for wealthy patrons.
Chippendale mirrors are found in four general kinds. There are the tall, imposing pier mirrors, often with a small table as a support in front. Then there are the up right rectangular wall mirrors. The long mirrors placed horizontally over the fireplace mantel, and often divided into three sections, were a third type, while the fourth type consisted of the small wall mirrors equipped with two or more candle sockets, on which Chippendale lavished some of his cleverest carving.
The finest work of Thomas Chippendale is seen in his mirrors and his chairs. He was essentially a woodcarver, as was his father before him. We know that early in his London career he did a good many carved frames for pictures, and perhaps his friendship with Sir Joshua Reynolds may have started with the coming of that artist into his shop to have a frame made by this young woodcarver. Some critics have suggested that Chippendale may have employed a sculptor to develop his ideas in clay models for him to follow in wood, but with the technical ability shown in the carving that we know as indubitably Chippendale's one may assume that such assistance was not of primary importance.