A simple dark pool of water was probably the first thing which enabled man to gaze at his own reflection. Ovid tells us the story of Narcissus who, having rejected the nymph Echo, falls in love with his own reflection in a spring and pines away with the pain of unrequited love.
Early mirrors were made from polished obsidian stone from Anatolia (Turkey) some of which date back to 6000 BC. Polished metals followed – bronze mirrors date from 2000 BC – and Pliny the Elder reported that mirrors were in use in 1stCentury Lebanon. The Romans developed and perfected the art of glass blowing, and remnants of mirrors have been found in every country to which the Roman Empire reached, including England.
Glass blowing developed in Europe through the Middle Ages and reached its pinnacle in 16thCentury Venice. The trade secrets of the glass and the mirrors manufactured on Murano were so carefully guarded that the glassblowers were not allowed to leave the island: if they did travel their families were held hostage. They discovered how to incorporate gold leaf into glass, producing a dazzlingly beautiful image. Mirrors were only for the extremely rich – one mirror was reputed to have cost more than a naval ship, and it was cheaper to buy a painting by Rafael than a mirror of the same size. Henry VIII and Francis I, contemporaries in 16thCentury Europe, were both fanatical collectors of costly mirrors.
As glass making increased in sophistication, so mirrors evolved from the small hand-held looking glasses to larger sheets of mirror for decorative and theatrical use. It was a tenet of the creation of Louis XIV’s Versailles held that only French-made items should be used in its construction; Jean-Baptiste Colbert lured several glass workers away from Venice in 1678 to create the 357 mirrors which make up the spectacular Galerie des Glaces. Whereupon the government of the Venetian Republic, jealously protecting its monopoly, reputedly despatched agents to France to poison the moonlighting workers.
Nowadays, with mass-produced mirrors everywhere, their uses are multiple and often utilitarian. But the limpid beauty of aged glass in a hand-made painted or gilded wooden frame is still unsurpassed.
The dramatic effect of a cleverly placed mirror is not lost on today’s interior designers. Mirrors give us extra light, they multiply a beautiful piece of art or a bowl of flowers; they reflect and scatter sunshine or candlelight. If we own a cherished sculpture, then the mirror will generously turn it into two, or more. A mirror-backed candle sconce doubles the flickering light in a room.
There are plain and heavily scrolled frames, painted or gilded, round and rectangular, to place in a nook or to fill a whole wall.
A gilt mirror sits as well on rough white plaster walls as it does on silk Chinese wallpaper, and we have designs and shapes here to suit every period. There is a rectangular Italian Baroque gilt-wood mirror from the late 17thCentury, with riotous leaf carving around the frame; a French Neo-Classical style mirror; and a Queen Anne pier mirror, the upper mirror plate carved with elaborate flowers and the frame with classically inspired pillars.
There are some that fill the wall, like the large English Empire style gilt mirror and an impressive George III gilt-wood mirror surmounted by an urn;
At the other end of the spectrum, we have a pair of minimalist, parchment-covered, mirrors in the French Deco style c. 1940, for a smaller space.
Just look at them, imagine the things that they have reflected over the centuries, and wonder.
Lucy Deedes has written for the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Saga magazine, Country & Townhouse magazine, had regular columns in the Scottish Field and Country Illustrated magazine.
For inspiration, pay a visit to our extensive showrooms in Petworth, home to room sets featuring bespoke, antique and contemporary pieces. Our adjacent lifestyle store offers a choice of homewares, accessories and gifts for everyone from children to the family pet.