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.
The present superbly carved convex mirror, circa 1810, was created very much in the taste of the Anglo-Dutch banker, collector, and theorist, Thomas Hope (1769-1831). Because of the presence of the surmounting mask formed as bearded male with bound hair and flower head clasps we are able to state that the mirror is in all likelihood the product of the master carver Peter Bogaert.
This can be deduced by virtue of the fact that there exists the identical mask on a table from Thomas Hope’s picture gallery at Duchess Street and again on a pair of giltwood torchères in the Royal Collection. All three masks are drawn from a unique reverse carved boxwood mold in which composition1 is poured, thus creating a consistently identical sculpted image. Reverse carved molds demand the highest level of skill a carver can attain whereby he is required to create the desired subject in the negative. Peter Bogaert is one of only two craftsmen singled out for praise by Thomas Hope in his seminal work Household Furniture and Interior Decoration:
I have, after the most laborious search, only been able to find two men, to the whole industry and takent I could in some measure confide the execution of the more complicate [sic] and more enriched portion of my designs; namely, Decaix and Bogaert: the first a bronzist, and a native of France; the other a carver and born in the low countries.2
Therefore, a strong likelihood also exists that he was the maker of Hope’s aforementioned table, one of the largest and most important items in the collection. Further confirming this likelihood, are the two pairs of giltwood torchères in the Royal Collection, which, because of recently discovered invoicing, can be attributed to Bogaert at the time of his partnership with silversmith Paul Storr (from 1809). As mentioned above, one of these pairs bears the identical mask.
The design of the present mirror, which draws down on Egyptian, Greek and Roman iconography, is emblematic of Hope’s style and his belief that “Antiquity was to be imitated but that it was not to be copied.”3 The frame is surmounted by a plinth that recalls ancient Egyptian stepped pyramids, as well as the primordial mound, the source of life in Egyptian mythology. This form was used by Hope in Plate X of Household Furniture to support “Egyptian, Hindoo and Chinese idols and curiosities.”4 The two figures on the left and right tiers of the plinth take the form of stylized Egyptian anthropoid (human-shaped) coffins. These types of funerary caskets became standard beginning in the Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC) and were decorated with a representation of the deceased, along with symbols and depictions of objects that would be of use in the afterlife. The present models are adorned with fictive hieroglyphs, though some derive from authentic ancient symbols. The topmost glyph of a circle surmounting a cross most closely resembles the Greek symbol for Venus, which also relates to the Egyptian ankh, signifying life. Each figure wears a nemes, the striped head-cloth worn by the pharaohs with two flaps hanging by the ears and shoulders, and is backed by a rippled acanthus leaf.
The cavity beneath the plinth contains a mask of a crowned and bearded male figure. An identical mask can be seen in Plate XX, No. 2 of Household Furniture, which illustrates the decoration adorning the end of table (figure 1) designed by Hope for his Picture Gallery at Duchess Street. He executed further illustrations of the “comic and tragic masks of Silenus, of Bacchante, of Juno and of Hercules” in plate XXXVII. Hope used masks in a number of his decorative schemes, basing them on ancient comic and tragic prototypes used by Greek and Roman actors, such as those depicted in the mosaic of “Choregos and actors” found in the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii (figure 2). Hope also drew upon the various 18th-century publications whose collections of classical designs comprised such masks, including Tischbein’s Illustrations of Homer from ancient monuments (1801-1823) and Baron d’Hancarville’s Antiquités Étrusques, Grecques et Romaines (1766-67) for Sir William Hamilton.
Further allusions to the ancient world can be found in the carved laurel wreath of the frame, a reference to victory and the ancient Roman Empire, as well as the crown of the god Apollo. The two pearl-string borders recall Venus, the goddess of love. The scrolled lion motif on either side of the mirror crest is clearly related to gold Cypriot spirals of the 5th century BC worn as jewelry by Grecian men and women, an example of which in the Metropolitan Museum can be seen in figure 3.
Thomas Hope was born in Amsterdam to a Scots family of court and government bankers living in Holland since the 17th century. The family had amassed a significant fortune and exercised it to influence both cultural and political arenas. Thomas’ father, John Hope, was a celebrated connoisseur of art and antiquities, with an extensive collection of Dutch and Flemish works. They participated financially in “the rise and fall of empires,”5 including the expansionism of Gustavus III of Sweden and Catherine the Great of Russia, support of Louis XVI in 1789, and completion of the Louisiana purchase by American Republic in 1803. Although prominent Dutch citizens, the Hopes’ lived according to Gallic tradition, mirroring the ancien regime, and “prided themselves on being Frenchified, spoke only French and lived entirely à la Française.”6
In 1787, at the age of eighteen, Thomas Hope embarked on his Grand Tour, which took a decade to complete and brought him to Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. While in Rome he enjoyed the company of fellow connoisseurs Sir William Hamilton, the Earl of Carlisle and the Earl-Bishop of Derry, as well as artist and architects such as Angelica Kauffman, Antonio Canova and Charles Heathcoate Tatham, whom Hope would later employ in England.7
Upon returning to London, Hope established himself at the corner of Mansfield Street and Duchess Street, expanding and remodeling his house between 1799 and 1802 with the help of Tatham. Determined to improve the standards of design and craftsmanship in London, the neoclassical and neo-Egyptian interiors were filled with ancient sculpture he acquired in Italy, neoclassical sculpture by contemporary artists such as Bertel Thorvaldsen and John Flaxman, a portion of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek and Roman vases, as well as furniture designed by Hope himself. The house in Duchess Street “[rivaled] in splendor and originality the other ‘lions’ of Regency taste: The Prince of Wales’s London residence and Carlton House and ‘Chinese’ pavilion at Brighton; Beckford’s neo-Gothic abbey at Fonthill; and John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields,” with the distinction that Hope’s house was “more modern and more public.”8 Hope entertained regularly and his lavish receptions, or ‘routs,’ were attended in large numbers by the upper echelons of Regency society, not least of all the Prince of Wales.
No records as to who made Hope’s furniture have yet come to light. In his introduction to Household Furniture he bemoans the difficulty in finding in London craftsmen with adequate abilities both in their level of skill in designing furniture and familiarity with the ancient world, and was thus compelled to take upon himself “the laborious task of composing and of designing every different article of furniture” he wanted produced.13
The present mirror is a beautifully conceived and well-informed example of the British regency’s taste for Egyptian style This taste for Egyptian motifs achieved the momentum of a mania following Nelson’s destruction of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir Bay in 1798. In the aftermath of Nelson’s victory the use of such motifs became a statement of patriotism and high fashion as well as conveying the impression of learned sophistication and a familiarity with the history of the ancient past.
The present mirrors are one of the most complex and dynamic expressions of the early rococo style in England. The mirrors employ the language of the rococo in the form of rocaille, floral and shell-like forms, and c-scrolls, yet retain a baroque sense of massivity and balance that eschews any hint of rococo frivolity. They were once part of the iconic collection of the Duke of Northumberland. According to Graham Child, they have a history of being present in three of the Ducal residences. “They were formerly at a house called Stanwick Park…The pair is also illustrated in the Duke of Northumberland’s archives as being in the collection at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, and were recently removed from Syon House, Middlesex.”
Sir Hugh Smithson of Yorkshire (who adopted the name Percy upon his marriage to Elizabeth Percy in 1740), inherited the title of Earl of Northumberland from his father-in-law. In 1766 he became first Duke of Northumberland, and set about restoring Alnwick Castle, making it his principle seat. The other properties belonging to the Duke included Northumberland House, his London residence, and Syon House and Stanwick Park, secondary estates. He was a great patron of the fine and decorative arts and “spent enormous sums in very costly decorations…and his wise husbandry rendered possible the alterations and decorations at Syon House, Alnwick, and Northumberland.”
Sir Hugh employed some of the greatest architects and cabinetmakers of the day to design the properties and their contents including Robert Adam, Matthias Lock, and Thomas Chippendale, who dedicated his Gentleman & Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754) to the Duke. The result at Northumberland House was an astounding estate, occupying nearly four and a half acres, where the Duke and Lady Northumberland became known for hosting opulent parties in lavish interiors. The ballroom could accommodate upwards of six hundred guests and “everything else was right for large-scale entertaining;” on one occasion there were “1,500 persons of distinction [at] a vast assembly at Northumberland House.’” Mirrors such as the present pair would have been perfectly in keeping with a home of such opulence and splendor.
The present mirrors are discernibly George II in style, bordering both the baroque and rococo tastes, and are similar in form to the type of work being produced by the likes of Benjamin Goodison and Matthias Lock. A detail of a drawing by Lock for his book, Six Sconces, which exhibits similar decorative elements to those found in the present pair of mirrors, particularly the lower central element in Lock’s cresting (pictured below). Aside from their overall symmetry, the selective use of areas of gilded sand is further proof of the mirrors being an early example of the rococo style in England. This feature was often seen on mirrors and picture frames from the Palladian oeuvre of William Kent in the 1730s and early 40s, but did not reemerge after this period.