Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Time to Reflect.... on Mirrors

by Mike Rendell

It is interesting that when my ancestor Richard Hall was writing in 1781 it was the old frame which got thrown away, to be replaced with a "New Carv'd Gilt frame" - while the actual mirror or glass was kept. Why? Because mirrors were extremely costly.
Mirrors had of course been around for several thousand years, originally using polished bronze or similar materials. But in the sixteenth century Venetian glassmakers on Murano found a way of coating the back of a sheet of glass with silver mercury.

Rivals stole the method of production and brought it to France, Germany, and particularly England, so that by the 1700s London had a thriving mirror-making industry.

A spectacular mirror in the style of Thomas Chippendale.

 Cheap it was not - and it was also highly dangerous, since mercury is an extremely unstable and dangerous chemical to work with. The process was quite complicated. First you needed a stone table which was completely level (so that mercury would not run off when poured) but the table had to be capable of being tilted gently. Then you needed a completely flat sheet of tin, moulded to give a gulley running all round its four sides( to catch the mercury as it drained).The tin was tied securely to the table. A small amount of mercury would then be spread across the surface and rubbed gently into the surface of the tin (traditionally using a hare's foot).

The next stage was to pour mercury over this prepared surface to a depth of between three and six millimetres. It needed to be as evenly spread as possible. Then came the difficult part - lowering the glass sheet onto the mercury so that it floated. The weight of the glass would force the mercury out to the gulley running round the tin sheet where it could be collected and used again. A blanket would be placed over the glass and weights used to press down the glass. The stone table would then be tilted, and the whole shebang left to dry for three weeks.The critical moment would come when the glass was lifted from the table - apparently even a loud noise could cause the mercury to run off from the back of the glass, with potentially fatal consequences. Death by inhalation of mercury fumes was not uncommon in factories where mirrors were made.

An Italian 'Grotto' mirror from the 18th Century, courtesy of

Small wonder therefore that a mirror or looking glass was an expensive item, certainly one which it was worthwhile for Richard to spend one pound eleven shillings and sixpence to re-frame (perhaps nearer a hundred pounds in modern terms). The chemical process of coating a glass surface with metallic silver was not discovered until thirty years after Richard's death. The actual inventor is a matter of dispute but one candidate is the German Justus von Liebig who published an article in 1835 remarking that "...when aldehyde is mixed with a silver nitrate solution and heated, a reduction is formed, as a result of which the silver settles itself on the wall of the vessel, forming a superb mirror."
In Richard's time, mercury-backed mirrors came in all shapes and sizes. The woodcarver Grinling Gibbons made intricately carved frames to go with his mirrors, but in the eighteenth century the adornment to the frames was often painted rather than carved. They became part and parcel of the design of the fireplace. Designers such as Robert Adams would produce schemes for fireplaces with a matching mirror and frame above it, sometimes reaching to the ceiling.

Fireplace with overmantel mirror, c. 1750 Image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

Mirrors designed to go above a fire-place were known as chimney glasses, while those intended to go between two sets of windows were called pier glasses. It became fashionable in the Eighteenth Century to have mirrored sconces - wall fittings to hold a candle but with a mirror at the back to reflect light back into the room. Later in the century cheval glasses came into fashion. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica ( "The cheval glass was first made toward the end of the 18th century. The glass could be tilted at any angle by means of the swivel screws supporting it, and its height could be adjusted by means of lead counterweights and a horse, or pulley, from which the name was taken. Thomas Sheraton in the 1803 edition of The Cabinet Dictionary, included a design with a nest of drawers at one side and another with a writing surface. When wardrobes were fitted with mirrored doors, the cheval glass became unnecessary in bedrooms".

Meanwhile my great great great great grandfather Richard Hall would have sat at his dressing table in his bedroom, attending to his toilet (or perhaps, as he would have said, his 'twaylit') using this tilting adjustable mirror. It makes you ponder on the transient nature of an image to think it was once his visage which reflected in the looking glass, and now it is mine!

Mike is the author of a book entitled "The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman" based upon the diaires and miscellaneous papers kept by his ancestor in the Eighteenth Century. He also blogs regularly on life in the Georgian era.


  1. Simply fascinating, Mike! Thanks.

  2. You are most welcome.I find the whole question of how the Georgians got light into their rooms, with mirrors, chandeliers, glass etc fascinating.Add to that mix the use of silver thread in fancy waistcoats, gowns etc and the glitter must have been amazing!

  3. Very testing! Anything else to add?

  4. How sad that we are surrounded by wonders that we take for granted. My office is a converted bedroom with mirrored doors on the large closet to my left. Imagine a person transported by a time machine to our age. Imagine their reaction if they landed in the chair next to me. They might be entranced by that mirror even before they noticed the magic window called a computer.

  5. Hi Mike,

    The testing post was me and an HP Support tech trying to figure out various problems that go on with my new computer. We are getting there!

    The mirror post is very informative, and being historical, very interesting. (Some people don't require that historical connection, but it suits me well.) We were given mercury to roll around in the palms of our hands in school. Decades ago (shhh). Fun stuff, till you find out later how dangerous that was.

    I see Blogger has added in a space-gap for you in your once perfectly formatted piece. I think I'll use the little feedback box. :)

    The really great thing is what you say in your last paragraph about your 4X great grandfather's image and now yours. You have such an amazing connection to your forebears. I have the odd teacup and hankie.... but at least I have that.

  6. I always do my time-travel backwards in time, not forwards! Am always amused how the contrast between daylight and night time dominated lives 200 years ago, and how entertainment of an evening by candlelight involved the family sitting down and ...talking, playing games, playing musical instruments etc. and then having a very early night (at least in winter). They shared more. We live in a world which has virtually conquered darkness, whereas our forebears had to 'go with the flow' a lot more, and we tend to live more in our own bubble what with computers, TVs personal stereos etc.
    A time-mirror sounds a great where is the 'remote' for it...!

  7. Wonderful post. Thanks very much. I always wondered about the mirror. Now, you have explained it.

  8. Very informative! Mirrors have been in existence for ever. Far, far back, people must have looked in the local pond to check their reflection, and from then on, it was inevitable that we invent the mirror. What is amazing is that it took so long. 17th century!


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