In Focus

Girandole mirror, 1810-1830

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable.

In 1803, the influential English designer Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) commented: "As an article of furniture, a mirror is a circular convex glass in a gilt frame, silvered on the concave side, by which the reflection of the rays of light are produced. . . . They are becoming universally in fashion." Sheraton was not exaggerating their popularity. Americans appear to have acquired English girandole, or convex, mirrors soon after 1800. During the next two decades, hundreds of these mirrors were imported for wealthy Americans. A small portion of those used may have been made in this country. However, making round frames was difficult, and only a few specialized woodworking shops would have been equipped to produce them.

If convex mirrors were made in America, most of them probably came from the shop of John Doggett of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Doggett had a large manufactory which supplied looking glasses to customers from Maine to New Orleans during the early nineteenth century. Significantly, his label depicts a girandole mirror similar to the one owned by the DMA. Both the label and this mirror are derived from ancient Roman imagery, a laurel wreath surmounted by an imperial eagle.

The Bybee mirror is made of native American pine, indicating that it could have been made here. However, American white pine was exported in huge quantities to Great Britain. Consequently, it is not possible to positively identify the origin of this mirror.

Whatever its place of manufacture, this mirror must have fascinated those who used it originally. In 1808, the English designer George Smith commented on the effect of such mirrors: "In apartments where an extensive view offers itself, these Glasses become an elegant and useful ornament, reflecting objects in beautiful perspective on their convex surfaces; the frames, at the same time they form an elegant decoration on the walls, are calculated to support lights. In order to produce the desired distrotion of light and space, such mirrors were hung high on a wall. The carver of the Bybee example compensated for the mirror's position far from the viewer's eye by using large, vigorous forms which could be read easily.

The Bybee mirror is unusual in two respects. First, the large rope motif seen on the frame is not common on girandole mirrors. Similarly, the use of both white and gold, as opposed to several shades of gold, is atypical. It appears that this mirror was entirely gilded originally. Under the old white paint are traces of gold leaf. The paint may represent a contemporary attempt to integrate the mirror into a room furnished with white furniture. White and gold furniture was popular during the 1810s.

Excerpted from:

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 95.