From brushing your hair or putting on your make-up to driving or simply to adorn a wall,

mirrors play a part in our daily lives often taken for granted and overlooked, but what of their history?

Jennie Buist Brown

stumbling out of bed to hair, make-up and outfi t appraisal before leaving home and, fi nally, to removing my make-up before falling once again into bed. And that’s just mirrors indoors. How about driving? We rely heavily on mirrors to keep us safe on the road. So it’s fair to say we’d be lost without them, but what of their history? Glass, the most obvious necessity for a


mirror, has been around since about 4BC. The Ancient Egyptians made glass multi- coloured beads and small vessels, and later the Greeks and Romans produced many glass objects. In fact, you can still buy a 2,000-year-old Roman drinking glass fairly cheaply at auction, many with beautiful iridescent surfaces from having spent years underground. But despite being masters of glassmaking, the one important development that evaded early glassmakers was clarity. And the secret of making clear glass continued to evade glassmakers for nearly fi ve millennia.

Of course, many of these early civilisations had mirrors of a sort – often, small concave plates of murky glass about the size of tea saucers, which were backed with thin sheets of rolled lead. They refl ected the world with the same sort of image we see now when we look in a polished silver tray or shallow pool of water. It was the Venetian glassmakers who finally discovered the formula for clear, colourless glass, which was free of bubbles and distortions and, most

an you imagine a life without mirrors? When I refl ect on my average day, mirrors feature heavily – from the fi rst glance in the bathroom mirror after

important of all, it was virtually free of colour. The Venetian Doges immediately recognised the value of the discovery and took steps to safeguard the formula. No one in the glass industry, including apprentices, was allowed to travel outside the confines of the Republic. Divulging the formula was punishable by death. And it worked – the Venetians had a monopoly on crystal glass that lasted for about 150 years.

A few years after the initial discovery, the

Venetians then solved the second problem, a suitable backing for the glass. Heated, liquefi ed tin mixed with mercury formed a refl ective amalgam that spread thinly and evenly, adhered beautifully to the plate, and refl ected an image without spotting or discolouration. By about 1510, the formula was complete and the mirror was born.

Bohemian rhapsody

Like all good secrets, the formula eventually leaked out, fi rst to eastern Europe, where Bohemian glass factories began to rival those of Venice, then to Germany, France and Britain. Louis XIV fi nally ended the Venetian monopoly when he created the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles – both a show of opulence and a declaration to the world that French glass had arrived. Today, many splendid antique mirrors are still available and, as well as wall mirrors, there are some beautiful antique hand mirrors. Look out for silver and mother-of-pearl examples, most from the 1800s although Art Deco mirrors are highly sought-after too.

Buying Antique Mirrors • Always check if the gilding is original – if it is, it will add to the value of the mirror as will ornate carving. 18th century mirrors have crisper and more ornate carving than 19th century examples although both are very attractive. • A bevelled edge is also an attractive feature in an antique mirror and will add to the value. All bevelling done before about 1850 is irregular and very soft-edged, while modern bevelling is done by machine and it has a sharp, hard edge, which is a good indication of replaced glass. • If the mirror glass is original it is likely to be more expensive. Check that it hasn’t been re-covered, although as the old backing is prone to corrode over time due to oxidisation, many older mirrors have had been re-covered. One rule of thumb is that the older the mirror glass, the more the colour will appear yellow or grey. • Don’t let your heart rule your head when it comes to buying antique mirrors. As well as checking condition, make sure you have measured the space where the mirror is to hang. Whilst it’s true that a large mirror can often make a small space look bigger, an enormous antique mirror will look out of place if it is just too large.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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