Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall

The fairest room accessory of them all.
Craig Mulcahy photographs

Who is the fairest of them all? When the Wicked Queen asked that famous question, I hope she was gazing into an antique mirror. After all, nothing adds more warmth and life to a room than a beautiful centuries-old mirror, preferably one that bears the markings and artistry of age.

But a beautiful antique mirror can be difficult to find and use correctly.

“I love mirrors in every room. To me, they are works of art,” says Terri Goldsmith, owner of Maison de Provence, a small, jewel box of a store on Magazine Street. Each wall of her stop features a mirror, from the large gilded mirror that once graced a French chateau, to a small Venetian painted mirror.

Mirrors are like jewelry: the final touch. And because the frames were hand-carved and gilded or painted, no two antique mirrors are alike. A fine mirror can be pricey, so it’s important to do a little homework before beginning your search for an authentic antique piece, lest you buy a reproduction for an antique price. Look closely for these details.

The back of an antique mirror will tell you a lot. Look for uneven wood as these pieces were hand-sawed by the artisan. The carvings along the frame will be uneven and asymmetrical. Often the two sides will not be exact images of the other.

 “Remember, these frames were painstakingly carved by craftsmen, so there will be imperfections in even the finest pieces,” says Goldsmith. “The French have a saying, ‘Fabrique avec amour,’ which means ‘carved from the heart,’ and that is especially true with mirrors.”

If the frame of a mirror is painted, look for layers of other colors that may peek through. A thick coat of paint usually means that the mirror is new. An older surface will have a flatness to the paint and will be naturally distressed with uneven chips.

Also, study the patina of a gilded mirror, which should have a warm, yellow cast. If a reddish tint shows through, that’s a good sign as under real gilded mirrors is bole, a reddish clay foundation. Look for fine cracks in the surface and a soft, smooth texture. You may even see tiny lines marking the small sheets of gold that were applied by hand onto the frame.
The mirror itself should bear small spots, called floxing, caused by oxidation. In true mercury glass, the preferred glass of the 18th and early 19th centuries, there might be small flecks resembling diamond dust in the surface, and the mirror itself should have a grayish hue.

Trumeaus, the tall painted mirrors which once hung in country French homes, are most popular today. “The word trumeau means, ‘the wall between two windows,” Goldsmith says. She recommends that when searching for a trumeau, notice the carvings or paintings above the mirrors as these depicted the interests of the owner. In her shop, one trumeau features hearts and was likely a wedding gift. Another features violins and probably belonged to a musician. Each trumeau tells a story.

Once you have found the perfect antique mirror for your room, consider the scale. “Most people opt for mirrors that are too small for the space,” says Goldsmith. She recommends that you also consider what is placed around the mirror to balance it. Most important, she says, the mirror should not exceed the perimeter of what is under it.

When it comes to mirrors, decorate fearlessly, says Goldsmith. “Don’t be afraid to mix or match or use more than one mirror in a room. An antique mirror can be just what a modern room needs to make it pop. A French mirror looks fabulous in an English setting and vice versa,” she adds.

Great antique mirrors, like other great antiques, are becoming rare and harder to find. But like a beautiful piece of jewelry, a fine mirror is worth the investment and the effort it takes to locate. Like art, it can be moved from room to room and passed down to future generations to appreciate.

And that makes the mirror itself the fairest of them all.

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