The History of Mirrors

Antique mirrors were first known by the name ‘looking glasses’ and they were first produced in Murano and silvered in Venice as early as the 16th Century. They were not made in England until the 17th century, It was Sir Robert Mansell’s glass house in London in 1625 where they were first made by the cylinder process ( where cylinders of glass were blown then split open and laid flat), and then by the Duke of Buckingham at his famous glass works at Vauxhall. The limitations of this process meant that only small plates could be made so several pieces of glass would be used to create a single mirror. By the late 18th century larger and better quality plates were being produced enabling more larger and decorative mirrors to come onto the market.

During the latter half of the 18th and 19th century framing styles changed dramatically from elegantly carved gilt wood mirrors of the Chippendale period to beautiful polished frames like the antique cheval mirror of the Victorian period.

Did you know antique mirrors were recycled as early as the 1700s.

Recycling is a large part in today’s life and although recycling is thought to be a new thing, there was actually a form of recycling that started in the 18th century. In the 18th century there was a heavy tax on glass coming from abroad and because of the failure of English factories to make large mirror plates that was highly sought after; it dictated the form and development of the mirror being created in Britain at that time. To avoid the tax and costly import of the larger mirrors from France, old antique mirrors were recycled and larger mirrors were produced by creating frames which held several pieces of glass, this gave the illusion of a single larger mirror. This went on until the late 18th century when far bigger mirrors with much lighter frames were being produced and by the beginning of the 19th century there was a rise in the popularity of small antique mirrors again like the convex mirror. The convex mirror was produced for the dining room and its purpose was for the butler to keep an eye on the progress of a meal without having to move around the room disturbing people dining.

The development Mirrors

Antique mirrors were very rare up to the 1700s. As the production of mirrors improved more were made and larger more grand versions came into existence. Large examples were still very expensive but the smaller wall mounted mirrors or small tilting examples were cheap enough for people to buy. In larger upper class houses, mirrors of all kinds were designed and made, from smaller antique wall mirrors to pier mirrors and usually the grander examples would have gilding. Mahogany was the main wood used for the frames due to the beautiful finish and the durability of the wood. Some would have pediments on the top usually with a prominent central motif in the form of a spread eagle, or inlaid with a shell pattern.

As mirrors developed, new styles were produced like the rococo and Chinese ornament to the frames and you would see Chinese designs like exotic birds, or some would come with gothic elements. Then the new vogue was simplicity as Adam and Hepplewhite, designed more delicately proportioned mirrors, oval and rectangular in shape, with simpler scrollwork, inlaid vase or similar classical motif. Adam preferred gilt work usually on a soft wood and hepplewhite usually used mahogany.

Antique Regency Decorative Gilt Overmantle Mirror.

Dressing and Cheval Mirrors

It was not until the late 17th Century that dressing mirrors became free standing. To begin with they were made of silver or silver gilt with trestle. During the latter half of the 1600s Venetian and Parisian craftsmen supplied beautifully decorated toilet mirrors. In the early 1700s many antique dressing tables were designed with collapsible mirrors fitted into the tops of the tables, and this was also seen in some antique chests of drawers. By the early 1700s toilet mirrors had become sturdier in construction, and most were standing on plinth bases which have small drawers, the best were serpentine fronted. The mirrors were usually rectangular and it was not until the 1770s that oval dressing mirrors became available.

Antique cheval mirrors or also known as standing dressing mirrors were first made in Paris. By the 1800s large plates of glass could be cast, and the free standing mirror known as the antique cheval mirror became very popular. ‘Cheval’ means horse in French, and the name given to the mirror refers to its four supporting legs.

antique cheval mirror

Foxing in antique mirrors, should I replace it or leave the original mirror?

Foxing is a term when the silvering in antique mirrors goes misty and sometimes looks bitty. So should you replace it or leave it? If the foxing is not too bad then I would leave it as it adds to the charm and character of the mirror, but if it is so bad that you cannot see your reflection properly then it might be worth re slivering it. This is a very time consuming technique and not many people do this anymore, but there are people who specialise in antique mirrors who can restore them for you.

Caring for your Antique Mirrors

If you want to care for your antique mirrors correctly, there are several things you can do. If the silver backing of an antique mirror has deteriorated (we call that foxing in the trade), repair should not be attempted until investigation have been done, as any restoration can devalue the piece especially on very early examples. First check with an expert if repairing the silver will de value the piece as some collectors will only buy with the original silver.

There are three traditional methods used to clean the fronts of mirrors. The first is to wipe the glass with a lint free linen cloth moistened with methylated spirits. The second is to wipe the glass with a lint free cloth which has been wrung out in lukewarm water to which a few drops of ammonia have been added. Lastly you can lightly moisten a lint free cloth with paraffin and wipe the glass. This last method works well, but leaves a small of paraffin in the air for some time. Whichever method is chosen, it is essential to avoid and moisture getting behind the glass, as this will cause further deterioration of the silvering.

Remember it is nice to see some foxing in the mirror as this adds to the character of the piece and I recommend you should never replace the old glass. If you want the perfect reflection then the following can be a very good option –

A method that is sometimes used in the antique furniture trade is to scrape all the old silvering off the back of the mirror and then get a very thin piece of modern mirror cut to the same shape. When pushed onto the old glass it causes a vacuum effect and sticks to the old glass so then you can have the benefits of the old mirror but that is usable. I would always recommend to have the re silvering as the best option but if all else fails and the mirror is unsalvageable then get a new good quality mirror cut to fit, so at least you can use and enjoy the antique mirror rather than just having a frame not in use.

If you are interested in antiques mirrors have a look at the beautiful examples we have for sale on antiques world.