Mirror thumbnail 1
Mirror thumbnail 2
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, The Foyle Foundation Gallery


1570-1600 (made)
Place of origin

This dressing mirror would have been kept either in the bedroom or in a separate dressing-room. It contained one mirror plate that could be held up by a maid so that the lady could admire her hairstyle from the back as she saw it reflected in a second mirror plate in front of her. The tropical hardwood used on the case was both expensive and highly prized. Together with the sumptuous decoration, this indicates that the owner would have been both wealthy and well acquainted with the latest fashions.

Object details

Object type
This object consists of 2 parts.

  • Mirror Frame
  • Mirror Plate
Materials and techniques
Tropical hardwood (perhaps ebony or grenadilla), with mother-of-pearl, painted and gilded; with a speculum mirror plate
Brief description
Of ebony, painted and gilded with arabesques, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl
Physical description
Frame containing a mirror, with sliding panels. Rectangular box frame of mitred construction, softwood veneered with ebony(?) on the flat edges and back, with painted (black/gold) back edge and sight edge mouldings between which sits a flat band of mother-of-pearl painted with arabesques in green, red and gold. On the back, upper edge of the frame are two (non original, apparently) brass ring fittings each secured by 3 slotted, round-headed screws, and on the top of the frame an original brass turn-latch held on a brass pin. The aperture is covered by a sliding, rectangular panel (a), (c.1.5mm thick) with tab, painted on its show face with arabesques in red, blue, green and gold contained within an octagon, and centred on a lobed leaf ornament. The panel has split across its middle and has been repaired with the addition of a glued panel (planed to extreme thinness) of tropical hardwood (possibly grenadilla). This sliding panel, though warped, can be withdrawn via a slot at the right side to reveal a painted sight edge moulding, and (in a rebate) the speculum mirror plate (b) of rectangular form with shaped pediment which slides up through a slot in the upper edge. With the mirror removed a mitred, chamfered edge - painted with arabesques on the sight edge and Greek key pattern on its top edge - is revealed, in front of an empty rebate for a second mirror plate or painted image (c), (now missing). This plate sat in a shallow rebate (about 1.5mm deep). Behind the rebate is a panel of unpainted hardwood (d), possibly rosewood or grenadilla (about 1.5mm) which may be slid up through a second slot in the top of the frame by turning the same brass turn-latch as before, revealing the reverse of the panel (c).

It is possible that the missing panel (c) was an image, painted on a thin support such as copper, certainly intended to have been seen from the front, and possibly its reverse too, with a second image, rendered visible by removing the rear panel (d), in which case the panel (c) would have needed to be glued into its rebate. The panel (d) is not obviously intended for frequent removal however, lacking a tab, and may have been intended only as an access panel - to allow the panel (c), unfixed because held in place by (d), to be easily removed for cleaning, say. A copper panel would have been prone to corrosion and would have required regular burnishing.

It is possible that the missing panel (c) was a second mirror plate, to be viewed in the frame, from the front, in conjuction with the first mirror (b). It is not clear why the reverse of such a mirror would have needed to be accessible by (d). Perhaps it too was painted with a private image?

Mirror plate
The material was identified by Lucia Burgo through XRF as high tin copper alloy - ie speculum. By 2009 the plate had become broken into several large sections. These were then reattached, supported by a thin, conservation substrate.

Painted decoration
Some of the painted decoration (eg on the front panel, lower left and passages of the mother-of-pearl freize) appears to be later, relatively crude imitation of original work (in some cases possibly abraded as the result of the panel (a) warping and dragging on the framework. The painting in gold on black of the flat architectural mouldings (fillets, bead and sausage astragal, waterleaf and dart) is of a lower quality than the best work such as the polychromy on the mother-of-pearl for example,or the gold on black on the angled sight edge mouldings, and it is possible that this was added (to plain black surfaces) after the 16th century, or that it was original but painted by a less skilful painter (and touched up in places at a later date). As the repertoire of classical ornament is found on other work of this type, the latter may be a reasonable working hypothesis.
  • Height: 24.7cm
  • Width: 21.5cm
  • Depth: 4.6cm
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries The mirror plate 13cm x 19.5 cm. The width of the front slot (i.e. nearest the decorated pull-out panel) is 13.4cm. The width of the slot at the rear is 11.4 cm.
Object history
Bought at the Farrer sale, for £1.10.0

Report by J C Robinson on acquisitions made at the Farrer sale at Christie's (MA/3/20/7 RP/1866/16903)
'Description of objects purchased at the Farrer Sale, Christie & Manson June 1866.
Metallic mirror in ebony frame with sliding panel cover; the frame and cover richly painted and gilded, with interlaced arabesque ornaments in the Oriental style. Venetian work circa 1550
Height 8 ¾” width 7 ½”
Purchased at frames sale. Price £1-10-0'

Henry Farrer FSA 1848-1864, was a miniature painter in 1822, subsequently picture dealer and picture restorer, by 1858 also dealer in antiquities. In 1864 he was operating from 106 New Bond St. He had 'a long and fruitful relationship' with the South Kensington Museum, lending or selling Renaissance and other objects (Clive Wainwright, 'The Banker, the Prince and the Dealers: Three Renaissance objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum', Apollo, vol.151, February 2000, pp.41-6). For further information on Farrer’s dealing and collecting activities, see Mark Westgarth, ‘Dictionary of 19th century antique & curiosity dealers’, Regional Furniture, vol.23, 2010, pp.99-100).
Information taken from NPG website (6/10/2023)
https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/research/programmes/ directory-of-british-picture-restorers/british-picture-restorers- 1600-1950-f

Various contemporary pictures show similar mirrors in use or hanging. These indicate that this type of mirror would have been kept in the bedchamber or dressing room of the house, and used when arranging one's coiffure, as Gilles Corrozet confirms in his Blason du Miroir, where he describes a Miroir de verre bien bruny/D'une riche chasse garny/Ou la belle, plaisante, et clere/Se void, se mire, et considere... (Mirror of well burnished glass fitted with a rich frame in which the beauty views herself pleasantly and clearly, admires herself and surveys...). It is unsurprising that these types of mirrors were being sold in a shop dedicated to high-end fashion accessories, and are listed alongside combs, toilette boxes and hair pins.
Historical context
There are references to double-mirrors ('da doi luce', i.e. with two mirror panes) in Gustav Ludwig's collected inventories of Venetian 16th century shopkeepers. One inventory includes round mirrors 'da doi luce' and more interestingly to us, 'casse da doi luce mezane numero 17', which sounds as though it could refer to something like the present framed mirror. Peter Thornton illustrates such a portable dresing mirror in The Italian Renaissance Interior 1400-1600, London 1991, fig.266. There are also very many references to ebony mirror frames. Peter Thornton confirms that ebony was a popular luxury wood, fashionable for cabinets and picture-frames, and also says that translucent multicoloured lacquers painted over a gold background, so that the latter shines through, which is exactly the decoration on the present mirror frame, was much favoured as a technique in the second half of the 16th century and into the 17th century for particularly sumptuous furnishings. An example of this type of decoration are the Venetian virginals that belonged to Queen Elizabeth, dated to c.1570.

On 16th century mirrors, see also: Gilles Corrozet, 'Les Blasons Domestiques' (1539), Furniture History, 1989, vol. XXV; Anna-Lisa Jensen, Mirror as Decorative Form in Renaissance Italy, V&A-RCA History of Design MA dissertation. 2003

Fine lacquerwork was made in Persia during the 16th century. It was commonly decorated with moresques executed in gold: this was done on relatively small items, such as folding book-rests, book-covers, containers for writing materials, etc. Such objects excited the admiration of Europeans whenever they saw them, and early imitations of this work embodying moresque decoration were made in Venice. The technique was deemed suitable for embellishing the covers of highly important government documents, so apparently carried no light-hearted or frivolous connotation in the way that imitations of Chinese artefacts were often to do later. Venetian lacquer was also used for making small objects, such as jewel caskets covered with moresques, although entirely occidental figure-subjects occasionally occupy panels within the imitation Islamic ornament. Sometimes the ground of the panels in such work was made of mother-of-pearl which reflects light back through the painted deocration applied on to it. A similar effect was contrived with a gold ground over which painted decoration was applied; the colours were often applied so as to form ‘the ground’, leaving the pattern itself unpainted (reserved as it is called), as exemplified on the V&A ‘Queen Elizabeth virginals’ (Venice, about 1570) or a harp ordered for the private orchestra of Duke Alfonso d’Este (Rome, 1581). See Peter Thornton, Form and Decoration, 1998, pp.34-5.

Huth says that from the 13th century Venice had been an entry point to Europe for goods (earthenware, metalwork, textiles, jewelry and lacquerware) from the Levant and Orient [sic]. A Venetian document of 1283 consists of rules for the depentores (those working with a brush, involved in the production of varnished caskets, tables and woodwork). The decoration of wares as opposed to simply protecting them with varnishes seems to have begun during the mid 16th century. A Syrian craft which may have inspired Venetian artisans working in lacquer was the practice of damascening metal, known in Milan and Venice as early as 1300. The Italian craftsmen (no non-European craftsmen were supposed to reside in Venice) who practised this art were called azziministi. Another non-European craft introduced to Venice from the late 15th century was the practise of fashioning elaborate bindings for books. Venetian copies or adaptations of lacquered bindings ‘in the Persian style’ date from the middle of the 16th century (eg Binding, Museo Correr 1570-77). European engravings based on Moresque designs, such as those by ‘the Master F’, were circulating in Italian workshops as early as 1520. Venetian shields of wood covered with parchment, painted with knotwork and scrolls, and with areas in white, red and green that shone through the varnish, giving the effect of lacquer survive in armeria of the Doge’s palace (Venice ) and from the household of the Bishop of Salzburg. Huth discusses other types of object (probably Venetian) with similar decoration, which may have been what was referred to by Italians variously as ‘frissi grottesche’, ‘alla zemina’ in the Persian manner, ‘petteniera turchesca’ in the Turkish manner: a quiver case, a folding table, small cases (casse da pettenti), caskets (scrigni or possibly what was known as ‘casse da conzar il cao’, boxes for dressing the hair), mirror frames and frames of architectural form with or without inset marble plaques, cuoridoro shields (described by Contadini in At Home in Renaissance Italy eds. Ajmar-Wollheim, and Dennis, pp.319-321), cabinets with leather coverings and musical instruments such as harpsichords and harps.

Monika Kopplin, European Lacquer (Munich, 2010), pp.23-34
Kopplin notes that Venice traded in shellac, mainly from north-east India, Indochina and Sumatra, and maintains that Islamic lacquered objects (made from as early as the 10th/11th centuries) were undoubtedly present in Venice by the 16th century. Recent studies of the techniques used found that Venetian 'lacquer' was generally made up of linseed oil and colophony derived from pine resin, a composition also mentioned in contemporary writings such as Leonardo Fioravanti (1517-1588) in his 'Compendio di secreti rationali' (Venice 1562). Turpentine of larch, also known as 'Venice turpentine' was also used, though not sandarac, the most important resin in Islamic lacquerwork but problematic on account of its limited availability and complex preparation. Arabesques were applied in powdered gold on the black-painted wood, and gold leaf employed for gilding larger decorative surfaces which were then given a luminous glow through a lustre finish in a variety of colours. Tempera was probably used as well as oils, and a final coat of glossy varnish applied. These studies suggest that the stylistic imitation of Islamic models was coupled with the use of largely identical techniques (p.24, citing Adriana Rizzo, 'Le "laque" vénitien: Une approche scientifique', in Venise et l'Orient 828-1797, exh. cat., Institut du monde arabe, Paris (2006), pp. 244-51)

Comparable frames
A frame in the Metropolitan Museum New York, attributed to Florence, mid 16th century (no.26 in Timothy J, Newbery et all. Italian Renaissance Frames. (New York, 1990) also featured two sliding shutters and three sight mouldings, and it is suggested that the mirror removed revealed an image of some kind, perhaps a portrait on copper.

Ivory mirror with sliding panel, with painted and gilded mother of pearl veneer decoration (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Kunstkammer inv. no. 4122); exhibited 2019 in Spiegel Der Mensch im Widerschein. (Zurich, Museum Reitberg, 2019).
Subject depicted
This dressing mirror would have been kept either in the bedroom or in a separate dressing-room. It contained one mirror plate that could be held up by a maid so that the lady could admire her hairstyle from the back as she saw it reflected in a second mirror plate in front of her. The tropical hardwood used on the case was both expensive and highly prized. Together with the sumptuous decoration, this indicates that the owner would have been both wealthy and well acquainted with the latest fashions.
Bibliographic references
  • Gustav Ludwig, ‘Restello, Spiegel und Toilettenutensilien in Venedig zur Zeit der Renaissance’, Italienische Forschungen, Berlin 1906, Volume I;
  • London, South Kensington Museum: Ancient and Modern Furniture & Woodwork in the South Kensington Museum, described with an introduction by John Hungerford Pollen (London, 1874), p. 192 "Mirror, with frame and sliding cover of ebony painted and gilt in arabesques. Venetian. About 1550. H. 8 3/4 in., W. 7 1/2 in. Bought, 1l. 10s. The frame is inlaid with pearl work in Oriental arabesque patterns, in imitation of Persian."
Accession number

About this object record

Explore the Collections contains over a million catalogue records, and over half a million images. It is a working database that includes information compiled over the life of the museum. Some of our records may contain offensive and discriminatory language, or reflect outdated ideas, practice and analysis. We are committed to addressing these issues, and to review and update our records accordingly.

You can write to us to suggest improvements to the record.

Suggest feedback

Record createdJuly 3, 2006
Record URL
Download as: JSONIIIF Manifest