To celebrate the publication of our latest catalogue Mirrors (which you can read here), we will be sharing a few posts that look into the history of mirrors in England from the 17th century onward.
Capturing ones reflection dates back to mythology: Narcissus, upon seeing his beautiful reflection in the waters, fell in love with himself and when he realized the love would not be reciprocated, he melted away and turned into a gold and white flower.
Although the earliest mirrors were made with highly polished plates of silver or steel, glass plate has no rival when it comes to its reflective qualities. Creating glass mirror plate was traditionally made through a method of silvering, which involved adhering mercury to a sheet of glass in a complex process. This was first recorded in Venice in 1507 by the brothers Andrea and Domenego dal Gallo. For most of the 16th century, Venice was the primary centre of production for mirror plates and their wares were highly coveted across Europe.
By the early 17th century the Venetian technique was being practiced throughout Europe. In England, Sir Robert Mansell created a monopoly over the production of mirrored glass beginning in 1618. He brought to his workshop ‘many expert strangers from foreign parts beyond the seas to instruct the natives of this Kingdom in the making of looking glass plates.’ Later in the 17th century, the mirrors created by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham at the Vauxhall Glass Works caught the attention of John Evelyn, who recorded in his diary on 19 September 1676 that he had seen ‘looking-glasses far larger and better than any that come from Venice.’
The earliest mirrors were often diminutive in size and able to fit on a dressing table, but as the ability to create larger plates advanced, so too did the size and scale of mirrors that appeared in noble interiors. In the late 17th century, the Duchess of Portsmouth had a room in her Vauxhall home lined entirely in looking glass. On his visit to this fantastical room, the Moorish Ambassador ‘much wondered at the room of glass where he saw himself in a hundred places.’
Next week, we will look further at the decoration of the frames that surrounded these valuable mirror plates.