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Article by Jennie Buist Brown | 29th January 2019

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

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?

Can you imagine a life without mirrors? When I reflect on my average day, mirrors feature heavily – from the first glance in the bathroom mirror after stumbling out of bed to hair, make-up and outfit appraisal before leaving home and, finally, 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 five 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 reflected 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 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, liquefied tin mixed with mercury formed a reflective amalgam that spread thinly and evenly, adhered beautifully to the plate, and reflected 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, first to eastern Europe, where Bohemian glass factories began to rival those of Venice, then to Germany, France and Britain. Louis XIV finally 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.

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