Post by Daisy Watson
It has been often stated that ‘Irish history is valuable’ and therefore, so too are its decorative arts. The often unpredictable market for Irish Regency mirrors and the high prices it can fetch are due not only to their visual beauty but also to their scarcity of supply. With only three flint glass factories existing in the 1780s in comparison to sixty in England, the most keenly collected Irish glass was produced in the 18th to 19th Century “Golden Age” with the few that appear in the antique market displaying the rare examples of fine-quality glass and framing. The 18th Century represented a ‘boom’ era for Ireland. With new waves of imported goods and new technologies, the ever-increasing appetite for luxury goods was beginning to be satisfied.
Characteristically the mirrors produced by the Dublin carver and gilder Richard Jackson aim to conjure up themes of grandeur through allusions to antiquity and through displays of masterful craftsmanship, thus enabling these mirrors to maintain their role as the most expensive status symbol for a household to acquire. Recorded at 5 Essex Bridge, Dublin, Ireland, the glass manufacturers and glass grinders at The Looking-Glass Warehouse produced mirrors and girandoles that lavishly displayed their skill in the area of glass making. Nicholas Wells Antiques’ Irish Regency four-light girandole signed verso ‘Arthur Williams’ naturally encompasses the themes and standards of the prevailing taste in late 18th to early 19th Century Ireland in its acute attention to detail and overall sense of grandeur. Other such mirrors produced during the Regency period stand out as well in their ability to conjure up such ideas.
The round convex mirror was very fashionable during the Regency period for its spectacular, distorted, and dazzling reflections. In The Cabinet Dictionary of 1803, the English furniture designer Thomas Sheraton wrote on the convex mirror as creating ‘an agreeable effect’, one that was ‘universally in fashion, and… considered both [a] useful and ornamental piece of furniture’. Alongside its decadent frame, classical associations, and incorporation of light-enhancing trickery, the mirrors of the Regency Period showcase their one-of-a-kind nature. An English Regency mirror, here at Nicholas Wells Antiques, possesses this otherworldly nature created through the use of the convex mirror. With its unusual two-tone gilding, it stands out in its ability to capture the viewer in both its intricacies and scale. An eagle surmounted atop the framed mirror holds a fine chain from its beak adding a sense of play and decadence to this already elaborate mirror.
An echoing motif of mirrors of this period is this inclusion of the eagle; its wings spread out in a powerful stance over its inhabiting space. A Regency giltwood and parcel-ebonised convex mirror, sold on 1 July 2015 at Christie’s as part of the collection of Richard Mellon Scaife, contains this similar motif of the eagle and girandoles yet is smaller in scale and is more limited in its detail and ornamentation. The circular convex mirror plate is placed within a beaded frame and flanked by a foliate apron with two candle arms. Yet, an even more dramatic adaption of the eagle motif is seen in Jackson’s giltwood pier-glass. The large eagle holds two heavily beaded and structural chains from its beak that come to form part of the exterior frame, enclosing the mirror in an illusionistic draping style.
Another Irish Regency giltwood overmantel mirror by Richard Jackson was sold anonymously at Christie’s in 1997. In comparison, this mirror shows a more heavy influence of the gothic style, with its strong sense of verticality and an ornate quatrefoil-planned frieze. Below, a series of delicate slender triple cluster columns divide and split up the mirror into three parts, further emphasising its height as opposed to width. Despite this, the rectangular frame still evokes ideas of classical antiquity through Jackson’s inclusion of a frieze and a projecting entablature-like feature. Furthermore, its giltwood treatment, as with many mirrors of this period, draws parallels to Nicholas Wells Antiques’ girandole. A Richard Jackson mirror found in James Peill’s Irish Furniture maintains a rectangular form, divided by further decorative frames within. Whilst this mirror is much more conservative in its application of decorative elements, each mirror still possesses details drawn from classical antiquity, whether it’s the frieze or columns with Doric style capitals.
The Regency period is noted as an era that encompassed great achievements in the arts but, it was also a period of great change. The industrial revolution brought new ways of thinking, building, and design, resulting from the interaction of new needs and new technology. Thus, these series of mirrors are more than just visual stimuli. They tell a story, one of virtuoso craftsmanship and one of the contentions of the new versus the old, in a beautiful showcase of skill alongside an exploration of classicism and gothic styles.
Andrews, I. (2008) ‘Irish glass, silver & ceramics: Ireland’s decorative arts have always had a devoted following among collectors but increasingly you need ‘the luck of the Irish’ to find the best’, Apollo, 168(557), 91+, available: https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A185291654/AONE?u=ed_itw&sid=googleScholar&xid=cdbd9c46 [accessed 05 Feb 2022].
Sheraton, T., 1970. Cabinet dictionary. New York: Praeger, p.271.
Christie’s Regency mirror collections online
Glin, D., Peill, J., Fennell, J. and McGrath, D., 2007. Irish furniture. New Haven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, p.267.