Not currently on display at the V&A

Toilet Mirror

1720-30 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

In the 18th century bedrooms and dressing-rooms could be used for entertaining close friends, often while the owner was having his or her hair dressed or making other preparations for appearing on the social stage. For this reason, the furnishing of such rooms was carefully considered. Asian lacquer or its British equivalent (known as japanning) was particularly popular. This small piece, which combines a mirror, a miniature bureau fitted for writing, and drawers for things needed for hairdressing or make-up, is an example of a type of furniture that became highly fashionable at the end of the 17th century and continued to be made until the middle of the 18th century.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Parts
This object consists of 22 parts.

  • Toilet Glass Body
  • Toilet Glass Support
  • Toilet Glass Support
  • Mirror
  • Brass Screw Fixing
  • Brass Screw Fixing
  • Loper
  • Loper
  • Drawer
  • Drawer
  • Drawer
  • Drawer
  • Drawer
  • Drawer
  • Box
  • Lid
  • Box
  • Lid
  • Box
  • Brush
  • Brush
  • Pin Cushion
Materials and Techniques
Softwood and oak, decorated in japanning
Brief Description
A toilet mirror (also known as a dressing mirror or union suite) on a desk-shaped base, with a drawer fitted with equipment for dressing, below a slope-fronted compartment fitted with pigeonholes and small drawers in the manner of a desk, the whole decorated in black japan (earlier described as green), with details in gold and black, the japanned decoration on a ground of beech, veneered on a carcase of softwood and oak.
Physical Description
A toilet mirror (also known as a dressing mirror or union suite) on a desk-shaped base, with a drawer fitted with equipment for dressing, below a slope-fronted compartment fitted with pigeonholes and small drawers in the manner of a desk, the whole decorated in black japan (possibly dark green, much discoloured), with details in gold and black, the japanned decoration on a ground of beech, veneered on a carcase of softwood and oak.



The mirror is in softwood and oak (the drawer linings), the main surfaces veneered in beech to give a fine-grained finish for the application of the japanned decoration on a deep green ground

The case is raised on four low bracket feet (replacements), cut with a curved outline. The case is bulbous on the lower part of the front, this profile also followed on the main drawer where a separate section of beech is glued to the drawer front to allow this profile to be cut.

The square-sectioned mirror supports rise from trestle feet and are topped by oval, turned finials that appear to be original. They support a tall, rectangular mirror with incurved top corners, the frame moulded. Above this and attached to it is a shallow, flat cresting panel with an arched, shaped top. The glass is cut with a shallow bevel which follows the shaping of the top of the frame.

The slope front rests on two lopers (pull-out supports), set to either side of the drawer. Inside the prospect or nest shows a central drawer with three pigeonholes above, flanked on each side by a smaller drawer above a larger drawer with a concave front, these extending forward of the upper drawers.

The drawer at the base is divided into 11 compartments of different sizes, the tops of the dividing sections rounded and cut with recessed sections to all the contents to be removed easily. This drawer contains two large lidded boxes (8 cm square); one small box (6.5 cm square); two brushes with coarse, dark bristles (one 8 x 5.5 cm, one 7.5 x 5.2 cm); on pin cushion on a low stand with Chinese fashion bracket feet, the pin-cushion section covered in pink and silver silk (replaced).

The fall front and the main flat panels are decorated with Chinese figures, buildings and plants in raised work, this now worn to show a brick-red under layer used to create the raising. On the slope the main scene is outlined with a border of flat gold with a scrolling design in black. On the front the japanning is so damaged that it is difficult to read the design. The mirror supports are decorated on their front faces with formal ornament of opposed triangles filled with plant motifs, in gold on the dark ground. The moulded frame of the mirror is decorated with fictive ‘mounts’ at the corners with formal foliage on the solid gold ground. Between these are finely painted motifs of buildings and plants with some raised areas. Similar, scattered motifs decorate the cresting. The inside of the slope and the flat area behind it show panels outlined with silvered stringing, enclosing motifs of birds, insects and plants, with no raised work. The pigeonholes are painted red. The drawer fronts are outlined with a silver stringing and painted with gold motifs of ribbons, flower heads and trellising. The drawers are painted red within, but their oak bases are undecorated. There is no ground to the red japanning and the grain of the oak is clearly visible. The inside of the large drawer is painted red, over oak, with no ground preparation. The lids of the boxes, the tops of the brushes and the frame of the pin-cushion show panels outlined with silvered stringing, painted with figures and plant motifs in gold.

The lock plate to the slope is of oval brass with engraved decoration, with extensions at each quarter to house the pins that fix it. The small brass knobs on the lopers and the main drawer are now painted black. On the drawers within the writing compartment are similar turned brass knobs, still bright. The main drawer was set with a stamped brass lock escutcheon with a pressed, beaded edge. This has now been removed and stored as it dated from no earlier than the 19th century. There appears to be traces of an original decoration to the keyhole in gilding, directly onto japanned ground. The box lids have ring handles with thin, square plates, set diamond-wise, the edges shaped in a Chinese manner with scrolls.



There are two keys.



Construction:

The main carcase is in softwood, veneered on the main flat surfaces with beech. This might have been birch but the lopers, if withdrawn, are clearly of beech, so it is likely that beech was used as the veneer wood throughout. All the drawers are of oak, with dovetailed joints, the bases pinned up.



Condition

The japanning in poor condition.

The two screw fixings holding the mirror have been replaced and the single remaining one (which was not, in any case, original, has been archived).

The silk covering of the pin-cushion is not original.

The mirror shows some wear to the silvering but is clearly the original plate.

Dimensions
  • Height: 33in
  • Width: 15.25in
  • Of base depth: 9.5in
Measurements from original register. Not verified. 05/12/2016
Style
Object history
Purchased for £15 from R.D. Radcliffe, Old Swan, Liverpool (Registered Papers 87854/1906, 87855/1906 and 15272/1906 on Nominal File MA/1/R29). He also sold the Museum items now with the Museum numbers 662 to 664-1906. The toilet glass was described at the time as 'Much rubbed; scratched; damaged.' The papers at the time of accession describe it both as 'green' and 'gold' depending on the writer. It is now apparently black, but may originally have been a green ground. Despite its condition, it was described by A. Kendrick as 'and interesting and characteristic example of European lacquer work executed under Chinese influence.' In a private letter to Alan S. Cole (Assistant Secretary to the South Kensington Museum, as the V&A was then known, and son of the founding director, Henry Cole), dated 26 OIctober 1906, Mr Radcliffe describes the glass as 'circa 1680 I fancy' and notes that, with some other pieces that he was offering, it was 'bought in Northumberland over 30 years ago & said to have come out of Dilston Castle'. Dilston had belonged to the Earls of Radclyffe until 1716 but for the rest of the eighteenth century was subject to immensely complex legal wrangles (the third Earl was executed in 1716 following participation in the 1715 Jacobite uprising) and its history of occupation was unknown. Mr Radcliffe, the seller, seems to have been particularly interested in acquiring pieces related to the Radclyffe family if what he offered to the Museum (not all of which was purchased) is taken as evidence.



Monika Kopplin, in European Lacquer. Selected Works from the Museum für Lackkunst, Münster (2010), discusses this form of furniture on pp. 79-81 and gives a clear, short account of the type. She notes that many were made in England, both for the home trade and for export to Europe (in Venice they were known as 'mobile da toletta' and the forms were copied exactly). She points out that the formal repeating motifs were often based on Chinese motifs, although the traditional symbolism was little understood. The Museum possesses a somewhat larger Toilet-glass of red lacquer, No. 1067-1904 (Bought, £12) which is, perhaps, of rather inferior workmanship.'



Object sampling carried out by Jo Darrah, V&A Science; drawer/slide reference 4/67.
Historical context
Small sets of drawers supporting a mirror became highly fashionable throughout Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century. The ceremony of preparing a fashionable person for the day was often a sociable occasion, when close friends would come to gossip while hair was dressed and powdered and details of the arrangement of dress and accessores was finalised. Even in fairly middling households the dressing table could become part of a sociable performance and sets such as these would be shown off and admired. Asian lacquer was popular in dressing-rooms from the end of the 17th century and imitations of it made in European centres could be extremely sophisticated and decorative. London was well known for its japanning by the beginning of the 18th century and it remained fashionable throughout the century.
Summary
In the 18th century bedrooms and dressing-rooms could be used for entertaining close friends, often while the owner was having his or her hair dressed or making other preparations for appearing on the social stage. For this reason, the furnishing of such rooms was carefully considered. Asian lacquer or its British equivalent (known as japanning) was particularly popular. This small piece, which combines a mirror, a miniature bureau fitted for writing, and drawers for things needed for hairdressing or make-up, is an example of a type of furniture that became highly fashionable at the end of the 17th century and continued to be made until the middle of the 18th century.
Bibliographic Reference
Ed. Ralph Edwards, The Dictionary of English Furniture, 2nd ed. (London: Country Life, 1954), vol. II, p. 361, fig. 11). In the description it is described as being in blue and gold japanning. There is otherwise no commentary.
Collection
Accession Number
661:1to:23-1906

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record createdJune 24, 2009
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