Treasures: Convex mirror antique or just a family heirloom?

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJuly 14, 2014 

Dear Helaine and Joe:

We have a convex mirror that has been in our family well over 50 years. There is some damage to the frame but the mirror itself is in good condition. The mirror is heavy and the frame is made of wood. What can you tell us about our mirror?

Thank you,

S. A., Wichita Falls, Texas

Dear S. A.:

The history of this mirror - or "looking glass" as it would have been called when it was first introduced - starts in the very, very late 18th century or early 19th century. Most references say that this type of mirror was introduced to England from France and from there it made its way across the Atlantic.

Some associate this type of mirror with the French Empire, others with the English Regency and still others with the American Federal style. Many link it with English designer Thomas Sheraton, who described a mirror as, "...circular convex glass in a gilt frame, silvered on the concave side, by which the reflection of the rays of light are produced..."

The French Empire (1804 to about 1825/30) was a phase of the Classic Revival Period that took its inspiration from antiquity such as Greece, Egypt, Etruria (the Etruscans), and Rome (thus the eagle on the top of the mirrors). The English Regency (technically 1811 to 1830) has a Greek Revival, an Egyptian Revival, a Chinese Revival phase, and later an interest in Greek and Roman inspired interiors.

American Federal (1789 to 1830) is a little more complicated and it embraces English Hepplewhite, Sheraton and American Empire styles. Most of the early (to mid) 19th century convex mirrors were made in England (or in some cases, France), but a few rare American made examples can be found - and when they are found, the better ones can be quite valuable.

Now, what about the one in today's question? The fact that the mirror appears to be all wood and has been in the family for at least five decades suggests that this piece is probably pre-World War II - or nearly so.

Period mirrors of this type (first quarter of the 19th century and a tad later) sometimes had candle arms on either side of the mirror to help provide light in dark pre-electricity rooms. When the candle arms are present, these are called "girandole" mirrors, but their absence does not mean the mirror is not "of the period."

Typically, the circumference of period convex and girandole mirrors were surrounded with gilt spherules or small balls. Actually, these small balls can be found in a variety of sizes and it was once thought that the size of the balls could be used in dating the mirror. Research has revealed that this is actually not the case.

The fact that the spherules are missing on S. A.'s mirror is a bit troubling and the rope surround does not seem to be a period feature. Also, the bottom pendant should be some sort of carved foliage (in most cases), but this is more like a Renaissance Revival shield flanked with scrolls and a little bit of foliage above the shield. This is highly suspicious in our mind.

As we examine the back of the mirror frame, we feel that the carving is too simplistic and the hangers appear to be original from the mid-20th century (circa 1935 to 1965) and the piece was not made in the early 19th century. Therefore, this is not an original convex glass Federal mirror, but a vintage (not antique) example that should still be valued for insurance purposes in the $250 to $350 range.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you'd like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN, or email them at treasures@knology.net. If you'd like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.

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