The history of the mirror and different styles of antique mirrors

15 April 2020

A Guide to Antique Mirrors


With a history spanning back millenia, the humble mirror has a rich and versatile past, a story preserved in the antique mirrors we see today.

From the mirror’s origins 8,000 years ago, different cultures have made mirrors out of copper, polished stone and bronze to name a few - ending with the aluminium-backed mirrors we all have in our homes today.

Nowadays, antique mirrors have both stunning aesthetic decorative purposes and practical applications.

Not only do mirrors amplify natural and electrical light, they are masters of illusion; making spaces appear and feel so much bigger than their physical dimensions.

And despite their transition from being rare objects owned only by the few to being commonplace possessions, the mirror’s decorative popularity still endures to this day, and none more so than in rare and authentic antique mirrors.

A brief history of mirrors

Scientists date the earliest mirrors to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) circa 8,000 years ago.

Back then they were crafted from obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, which was ground and polished until it reflected images, albeit darkly and distortedly.

All across the world in the following millenia the mirror appeared again and again in different forms.

They were made from polished copper in Mesopotamia and Egypt from 4,000 to 3,000 BC, in Central and South America made from polished stone from 2,000 BC onwards, and also appeared in China and India made out of bronze and copper around the same time.

Venetian innovation

Techniques for creating mirrors advanced along with society. It was the Venetians that popularised mercury mirrors, so early (pre-18th century) mirrors of this manufacture are likely to be Italian.

These were made by coating glass with a mixture of tin and mercury.

As a general rule, earlier mirrors tend to be slightly smaller, or with sections of mirrored glass, as there was not the ability to produce single sheets of large glass until the late 18th century.

Only the very wealthy could afford very large panes of glass. .

For this same reason, throughout history floor length mirrors were very rare. The majority of people never saw their full reflection - unthinkable in today’s modern age.

The success of Venetian mirror makers was such that it was said the French court of Louis XIV sent spies to Venice to steal their secrets.

The spies must have been successful as France soon became renowned mirror producers in their own right!

One of the first uses for the new-found ability to create Venetian mirrors in France was creating an enchanting hall of mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, featuring 357 mirrors titled the ‘Galerie des Glaces’.

The French did not keep such a monopoly on their mirror-making secrets, and techniques spread to other countries soon after.

In the early 19th century, a new, safer method of mirror-making was invented, using silver nitrate to replace the highly toxic mercury. This soon replaced mercury altogether.

Today we use aluminium in mirrors. It’s light and cheaper, and crucially, not poisonous!

Mirror frames

Earlier mirror frames tend to be made of carved wood or carved wood and gesso.

They are called giltwood mirrors if a thin layer of gold leaf has been applied over the carved surface

Pine and gesso is a more common material, the detail being made from wire and gesso. A thin layer of gold leaf is usually applied over the top.

Different styles of antique mirrors


Different styles of antique mirrors

The Rococo style, or Late Baroque style, began circa 1730.

Rococo wall mirrors are characterised by their heavy, ornate frames. The complex frames were sculpted in plaster and often gilded.

Derived from ‘Rocaille’, which was originally a method of decorating using concrete, pebbles and seashells, Rococo style uses natural forms like shells, and floral/leaf motifs.

English Regency wall mirrors

The Regency era took place between circa 1811 and 1820, at the end of the Georgian era.

English Regency mirrors were more angular and simple, often with architectural columned frames.

French overmantel mirrors

Overmantel mirrors are designed to fit over a mantelpiece, usually resulting in a flat bottom edge that runs parallel to the mantel.

French overmantel mirrors are some of the most decorative mirrors.

They are often very tall, intended to sit above fireplaces in rooms with very high ceilings.

Chippendale style mirrors

English mirrors of the 18th century often draw inspiration from Thomas Chippendale, with fine carving and a light frame.

Chippendale style furniture was recognised for its innovative design and high quality and was influenced by the Rococo style, which resulted in ornate gilded mirrors.

Chippendale style mirrors are most often naturalistic in form.

They are generally made of mahogany, but are also made of walnut, cherry or maple.

Victorian mirrors

Victorian mirrors were made during the reign of Queen Victoria, between 1837-1901.

Mirrors of this period often adopted styles of periods past, and were known for being grand or elaborate.

Victorian mirrors are usually the most heavily carved, with bold decoration.

The Victorians didn’t solely favour gilt, but often opted for woods such as mahogany or rosewood.

Considerations when buying an antique mirror

When buying an antique mirror it is always important to check the glass for any damage, chips, cracks or scratches.

It is also desirable to have the original glass that the piece was made with. This might be mercury glass which is particularly sought after.

A good way to identify mercury glass is to see if there is a slight sparkle to the reflection behind the glass.

A guide to antique mirrors: Conclusion

Mirrors have a long and interesting history that stretches across the world and dates back centuries.

It is this rich history and the unique characteristics of each style of mirror that makes antique mirrors an attention-demanding centrepiece for any room.

If you’re looking for a beautiful antique mirror, Westland London have a wide and varied selection to choose from. Check out our stunning range here.