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Mirrors And Girandoles

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE history of the discovery of glass-making and its application to practical uses is one of the great romances of commerce. There are many who specialise upon the collection of antique and even ancient specimens of glass blowing, finding in their hobby much to occupy their attention, for glass has been made by many peoples who in their several ways have advanced in the art. The furniture collector meets with old glass in various forms ; its use is by no means restricted to silvered glass mirrors. Sometimes glass has been used for reflective purposes, and at others for purely ornamental and decorative effects. Coloured glass, too, has been employed, and some remarkable results produced by its introduction in candelabra, girandoles, and mirror frames. In more recent years the so-called cathedral glass has been much used in furniture decoration ; and as more powerful illuminants than candles are used in lighting entrance halls, cathedral glass with its softening tints has been used in hall lanterns ; moreover, coloured glass is employed for decorative shades for gas and electricity.

The Ancients delighted in mirrors, and regarded them as essential toilet requisites long before the reflective silvered glass was known. Many stories have been told of the mirrors of maidens who had realised the reflective power of Nature's looking- glass, and who had craved for a mirror of steel or silver to supplement the clear shining pool.


The earliest known metal mirrors are those which have been found in Etruria, dating from about B.C. 400; they are of bronze, slightly convex on one side and polished, and of much the same size as modern hand-mirrors. On the face of these old mirrors was originally a coating of silver or an amalgam of metals, which, when they were made, had a reflective power. The engraving or decoration of the backs chiefly took the form of Etruscan figures, such as those which were painted on old Greek vases. There is a very early example of an Etruscan mirror in the British Museum, which is quite plain but attached to a stand, fashioned in the form of a draped female figure, above whose head are two cupids.

The Roman mirrors were small ; the examples in the Guildhall Museum, which are of bronze, are circular, measuring about 4 in. in diameter ; several of them were dug up in Whitechapel some years ago.

There were English-made metal mirrors in Anglo-Saxon days ; but most of those which have survived are of later date, the examples in the British Museum and other London galleries being chiefly of mediaeval days. From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries small circular mirrors not unlike the Roman mirrors in size, made of polished steel or other metals, were carried at the girdle or about the person, but for their safe keeping in unscratched condition they were often enclosed in small boxes of ivory or wood, and were frequently handsomely carved.

There is an authentic account in the- inventory of the contents of the Palace of Westminster, made in 1542, of a round " looking-glasse " (probably a piece of polished metal over which was a plate of glass) which belonged to Catherine of Aragon. In the inventories of the Duke of Burgundy in the fifteenth century mention is made of a verre a mirer, or looking-glass.

The amalgam of mercury and tin, which enabled makers to produce a "silvered" surface, was not known until the sixteenth century. The first real glass or mirror-making industry was founded in Venice, and the secrets surrounding the manufacture of that glass were jealously guarded. The privilege of the exclusive right to make mirrors in Venice had then been granted to the two brothers Murano —it was to continue for a term of twenty years. The works where the Venetian mirrors were made, were extended, and the fame of the brothers quickly spread. Their method of making sheet glass was very simple ; the glass was blown into large cylinders, and when at a white heat split and spread upon a stone, in which the so-called metal was flattened. In due course came the polishing process, and afterwards the silvering, covering over the back with a metal amalgam.

When the fashion of having large mirrors spread over Europe had extended to this country, immense sums were spent upon mirrors, and upon the costly frames with which they were cased. In an inventory of the effects of the French Minister, Colbert, mention is made of a Venetian mirror in a silver frame, which was valued at 8016 livres. Some very fine examples of old Venetian mirrors are still to be found in some of the baronial halls of England, and those who are not fortunate enough to possess any of them may become acquainted with the technique of the glass, as well as the composition and ornament of the frames, by examining some of those which are on view in the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington. In some of the royal palaces, like Hampton Court, there are many fine mirrors, and at Holyrood Palace there are some early examples, notably a mirror said to have been used daily by the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots.


The glass-making industry in England dates from the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Sir Robert Mansel introduced some Italian workmen, who were experts in mirror - making. The Duke of Buckingham was associated with the founding of an important glass works at Lambeth, in 1670, and there mirrors with bevelled edges in the Venetian fashion were made. Evelyn, referring to a visit to the works, says : "I found them making looking-glasses far larger and better than those that come from Venice."

The larger mirrors were then made in two or three pieces, owing to the impossibility of then making a sheet large enough for the frames or panels which it was desired to fill. At that time there set in quite a rage for large mirrors, which tended to increase the appearance of the size of the room—and at that time large rooms were already becoming popular. The arrangements of mirrors required great skill, in order that they might be set at the right angle to produce the desired reflection. At Hampton Court Palace there is a mirror over the mantel-piece of the King's Writing Closet which gives a reflection showing the interior of several rooms in the vicinity. Many of the royal apartments and state rooms at Hampton Court have exceptionally fine specimens in which the variety of ornament used in the making of frames can be studied.

Picture- and mirror-framing was an important craft, for the artist hoped by the frame to enhance the beauty and attractiveness of the mirror, and to draw attention to the painting or picture framed in glass or wood. The entire aim of the mirror-frame maker was decoration. Glass was employed in its ornamentation, blue borders and rosettes of glass being freely used. The earliest mirror frames were of ebony, walnut, and olive wood. Later came a fancy for lacquered frames, and at one time for carved wood and plaster. The carving of Grinling Gibbons was followed by that of others, who cleverly imitated garlands of flowers and scrolls and urns. It had a curious effect running down the sides of mirrors, often overlapping the glass. The introduction of Dutch marqueterie gave a distinct change to the style of mirror frames, but in no way altered the popularity of the mirrors themselves. The extravagance of the furnishings of the Restoration period were " reflected " in the mirrors of that day. It is said Nell Gwynn had her rooms almost lined with mirrors, and her lead was followed by others.

The Lambeth or Vauxhall (in olden time written Fauxe Hall) factory of Dawson, Bowles & Co., under the patronage of the Duke of Buckingham, stood on the site of Vauxhall Square. Not far away were the famous Vauxhall Gardens, and the Manor House of Vauxhall, which, from an old print dated 1800, must have been a wonderful Tudor pile, such as would have delighted the connoisseur of old furniture.

As it has been pointed out, the making of sheet glass was effected by blowing a thin cylinder, cutting it, and opening it out flat. Plate glass, however, was made by pouring the "metal" into shallow trays, and afterwards cylindering it. The silvering process was effected in several ways, chiefly, however, by floating over it a thin layer of mercury, afterwards covered with a leaf of tin. The modern process is that of covering the plate with silver foil instead of mercury. Glass bevelling was in early days done by pressing the glass when molten; cutting by the use of the sand-wheel was not known until the eighteenth century. It is sheets of Vauxhall silvered glass which are generally found in the doors of the bureau-cupboards or cabinets of the days of Queen Anne. The convex mirrors made at that time present remarkable similarity ; the eagle was the chief type of ornament in the gilded frames.

Picture mirrors form a distinct class of decoration. The lower part of these over-mantel glasses is a mirror, often divided into three pieces, surmounted by a picture in needlework or an oil painting. The frames of the mantel chimney-glasses generally coincide with the period of decoration, often following the architectural style, especially during the period of Adam inspiration. At that time the wall mirrors were neatly framed. They were beautiful in their chaste designs and characteristic decoration. They were nothing, however, in attractiveness to the fantastic decorations of Chippendale and his school. The rococo ornament ran riot in the shapes. and imagery of mirror frames. Many of Chippendale's best frames, however, were comparatively small. When such frames are examined the loss of wood, which must have been cut away, appears enormous. The delightful glass pictured in Fig. 106 is fancifully shaped, and cut in the French style of about 1760. It was originally gilded, its total height being 5 ft. 3 in., and the greatest width 2 ft. 3 in.

The practice of breaking up mirrors by cross bars and frames enabled makers to use up small pieces of the then expensive glass. Even prints were robbed of their margins in order that small frames might be used, and the cost of glazing lessened.

The heavy duties which were levied in 1695 hampered glass-making ; they were, however, repealed in 1698. Once again the glass trade passed under a cloud, when heavy duties were imposed in 1745. It was about that time that so many small toilet glasses were made, and ornamental mirrors and girandoles were reduced in size.

The toilet glasses made at the Vauxhall factory were quite small, generally oblong, and were mounted in narrow walnut frames, mahogany being used later. Small drawers were introduced, and in some a miniature cabinet, the swinging glasses being held in position by thumb-screws. From 1710 to 1715 constituted the period during which many of the small glasses, then regarded as novelties, were made for use in bedrooms. About 1715 the cheval glass appeared (this glass, large enough to reflect the full length figure, was so-called because of its immense size).

The larger toilet-glasses were used on small chests of drawers, and were, of course, distinct from the earlier toilet glasses and toilet-tables. Note the fine dressing-table in Fig. 103, which is one of the finest examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Such glasses, usually made of fine wood, were decorated with Chinese subjects in black and gold lacquer, the red and gold varieties of lacquer being the rarer.

In the eighteenth century dealers were actively selling glasses bought from those who worked after the fashion of Chippendale and Hepplewhite, and later of Sheraton ; some seem to have specialised upon such goods, and to have posed as retailers of looking-glasses only. Among such traders was Minshull, who in 1775 had a " Looking-glass store in Hanover Square, opposite the Golden Key."

As an instance of the way in which glass lustres entered into lighting arrangements of rooms a century or so ago, the following summary of a trader's catalogue, dated 1810, is given : " Lustres, candelabras, and lamps for suspending from the ceiling, lamps from brackets, table lamps, and chamber candlesticks with one or two sockets, and with and without glass lustre drops, candle brackets for mirrors and pier glasses, ' nossels and pans' (sockets and candle rings) and icicle lustre drops." In another catalogue the list of contents includes candlesticks with and without drops (the cost of these glass drops was as much as a guinea a pair).


The term girandole is often misapplied. Strictly defined it is an ornamental branched candlestick, and particularly refers to these elaborate candelabra made during the most extravagant period of eighteenth-century art. Girandoles of Chippendale style, without and with glass backs, were more fantastic than decorative. They served their purpose, however, and helped to ornament the walls on which candles burned, throwing a dim light around. The mantel-shelf candelabra glistened with cut lustres. They sometimes stood on pedestals, at others they were fixed on the walls, in which latter instance they were almost invariably backed with ornamental decorative work, frequently reflective silvered glass. Old girandoles are now much sought after, and when done up can readily be adapted to electric lighting. When coal-gas superseded candles girandoles were discarded, and many were broken up and the metal work melted ; but a goodly number survived, and are now welcome additions to twentieth - century furnishings, especially as they are so 'well adapted to the new methods of lighting.

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