A fine and rare American Federal two-arm looking glass girandole mirror, made in Boston or Salem, circa 1800-1810. In Europe and America, mirrors, or “looking-glasses” were considered a great luxury in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The cost of both the technical production of the plate itself, as well as the cost of successful transportation of the finished product dictated consumption exclusive to affluent members of society. In the mid-nineteenth century, more widespread production of mirrors helped by reducing the cost, but nevertheless, most mirrors were often found in houses of the well-to-do. By all accounts, the vast majority of mirrors were of English origin, although French mirrors were a fairly common occurrence in America by 1810. The most popular form of mirror in the eighteenth century was a rectilinear form placed in a wooden frame that was veneered with either mahogany or walnut. The earliest of these examples exhibited carved elements that were often times embellished with gilded surfaces. In the last two decades of the eighteenth century, it was more common to find inlaid components reflecting the latest Hepplewhite style that had emerged. A new type of mirror was introduced to consumers in the late eighteenth century. Circular, or oval, looking glasses with either convex or concave plates enjoyed immense popularity in the Neo-Classical era. In the 1808 publication of “Collection of Design of Household Furniture“, the English Designer George Hepplewhite wrote enthusiastically about the virtues of such mirrors:
“In apartments where an extensive view offers itself, the Glasses become an elegant and useful ornament, reflecting objects in beautiful perspective on their convex surfaces; the frames, at the same time form an elegant decoration on the walls, and are calculated to support lights…in general, they will admit of being of bronze or gold, but they will be far more elegant of wholly made of gold”
The glass surfaces not only provided reflective illumination of the mirror’s candlelight, but their distortion caused by the convex glass was considered a fashionable novelty at the time. There is a commonly held modern and romantic belief that the convex glass aided servants in providing service to their employers (hence evoking the misnomer “butler’s mirror), however, this mis-conception by-passes the original intent of the mirror’s designer. Logistically, household assistants would have no need to look in the mirror’s plate to see the needs of those they served. Additionally, the high cost of such mirrors would certainly not justify that purpose.
CONDITION: Not only a visual delight, the convex mirror shown here survives unscathed by time, retaining the original gilt surfaces and mirror plate. The two candle arms have been fitted for electricity at some time. The crystal candle-cups date to the nineteenth century.
GENERAL NOTES: This mirror is one of only three known to exist from the same American workshop, which has yet to be identified. All have been described as the highest achievement of the form in America. The two other mirrors appeared at auction in New York City. The first was sold by Sotheby’s, Americana sale, January 22nd, 1994, lot #484. The other was sold again by Sotheby’s, New York, in the celebrated sale of Mr. Eddy Nicholson, January 27th, 1995, lot #1154. Both of these mirrors were constructed of Eastern white pine or “pinus strobus”, supporting an attribution to a coastal Massachusetts workshop.
SOLD TO A SOUTHERN COLLECTOR