A Probably Unique Pair of Regency Anglo-Chinese Convex Mirrors
This pair of mirrors, circa 1815, were carved by Thomas Fentham (1771-1801), a leading Regency carver, gilder, looking glass, and picture frame-maker, while the reverse-painted plates are almost certainly Chinese. Fentham worked in the Strand, London where he held premises at Nos. 49, 51 or 42 (1774-93) and No. 136 (1794-1820). His business was substantial; the house and shop at No. 136 in the Strand were spacious, and insured for £5,400, and his handsome frames were acquired by such notable patrons as Lady Heathcote, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, Charles Townley, and the Yorke family at Erddig Hall. One mirror bears a ripped paper label reading: THOMAS FENTHAM / No. 136 STRAND / NEAR SOMERSET-HOUSE / Manufacturer of Looking-Glasses, / CONVEX and CONCAVE MIRRORS / AND ALL SORTS OF / PICTURE and GLASS FRAMES. / GLASS for EXPORTATION.
Between 1807 and 1821, the firm traded as Thomas Fentham & Co. and was taken over upon Fentham’s death in 1801 by his son, Thomas John, and son-in-law, John Bainbridge. He died an apparently wealthy man, and among the provisions of his will he requested that a monument be erected in his memory.
Each of the present mirrors is painted with a different river scene depicting mountainous Chinese landscapes with pagodas, fishermen and various types of boats. The vogue for Chinese-inspired interiors in late-18th and early 19th century England was revived and fostered under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who executed a small number of royal interiors in the chinoiserie taste, beginning with the lavish Chinese drawing room created in 1790 at the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House, and followed in 1801 by the one of the Regency’s most remarkable buildings, the Royal Pavillion, Brighton.
The convex mirror was widely popular among the high society during the Regency. An addiction to light and space led to the greatly increased use of wall mirrors, which the antiquarian John Britton (1771 – 1857) remarked ‘were adopted to extend the apparent dimensions of our rooms’. In 1803 Thomas Sheraton observed in his Cabinet dictionary: ‘the perspective of the room in which [convex mirrors] are suspended presents itself on the surface of the mirror and produces an agreeable effect’.
The frames of the mirrors epitomize Regency decoration, particularly in the eagle that surmounts each, which was a symbol of might and triumph. Each eagle sits on a pedestal flaneked by scrolled acanthus leaves, while the apron is decorated with sprigs of oak leaves and acorns, centered by a shell. The oak, adopted as the national tree of England, is symbolic of virtue, strength and endurance.
The present mirrors appear to be the only known examples to incorporate Chinese reverse glass painting onto convex mirrors. Usually “the plates of mirror glass were imported from Europe for decoration by Chinese painters and in 1764 Elie de Beaumont speaks of mirrors sent from England, painted in China and then returned.” However, Breton de la Martinière noted that a single “glasshouse” for the production of mirrors existed in Canton, “the only [one] in the Empire” and technical inspection of the present glass and mercury silvering has led to the almost certain conclusion that they were fabricated in China.
Such a new and extremely difficult undertaking would have tested Chinese glass makers to the limit, and these being the only known examples likely attest to the probability that it was a problematic and costly procedure, thus rendering the process commercially unviable.