Friday 15 December 2017

Treasures: Smoke and mirrors...

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Corona chair up for auction
Corona chair up for auction
Pier mirror could sell for €2,500 at auction.

Eleanor Flegg

'I had a nasty piece of land that brought in nothing but wheat; I sold it and in return I got this beautiful mirror," said Madame de Fiesque. "Did I not work wonders - some wheat for this beautiful mirror?"

Madame de Fiesque lived in late 17th century France, but the account comes from the French political theorist, Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825). He probably used the quote to register his disapproval of the "idling class". While it was intended to show the values of that class, from a 21st century perspective it also shows us just how valuable mirrors used to be.

Sheet glass was expensive and difficult to make. On top of this was the challenge of creating the reflective backing for the mirror. Until the silvered-glass mirror was invented by a German chemist in 1835, mirrors were backed with a mixture of mercury and tin. The process was pioneered by Venetian craftspeople who jealously guarded their secret. By the 18th century, industrial spies had done their work and mirrors were made in Paris and London.

They were still the preserve of the rich and their finely carved and gilded frames are an indication of their value. The most prized examples of 18th century mirrors have both glass and frame intact.

Sheppard's auction of Great Irish Interiors, which takes place in Durrow on Tuesday and Wednesday, includes a number of 18th- and 19th-century mirrors in gilded frames. A pier mirror, made to go between the windows of a Georgian house, and dating from around 1760, shows a gilded ho-ho bird in the centre of the pediment. The mythical ho-ho bird is a Japanese version of the phoenix. It's estimated to sell between €1,500 and €2,500.

Many of the finest mirrors of the 18th century were made in Dublin, encouraged by a favourable tax regime. In his book on Queen Anne & Georgian looking glasses, F Lewis Hinckley argues that "tax conscious Americans" steered clear of London produced mirrors "when all such necessities and luxuries could be obtained... tax-free, in Dublin". The most famous of the these craftsmen were the "Looking Glass Merchants", "glass-grinders" and "glass sellers", Francis and John Booker who had premises in Essex Bridge, Dublin, around 1750. In 1772, Francis became Lord Mayor of Dublin but his brother John, also a carver and gilder, carried on the family business until the late 1780s. Now, they can now fetch enormous sums. In October 2015 a George II giltwood pier mirror by the Booker brothers sold for €60,000 at Adam's.

The frames around 19th century mirrors tend to be more elaborate. "If you want to know how old a mirror is, look at the back and it will reveal all its secrets," says Sheppard.

"If someone claims that the mirror is 200 years old, then the back of the mirror will look old. If it looks perfect, then you'd better start asking questions."

Much more recently, the 1970s saw a great revival in mirrors, often smoked and framed in chrome.

These too are finding their way into the auction rooms. DeVere's Design Auction, on Monday, has several 1970s mirrors and some mirrored furniture from the same era. A gilt metal hall table (€300 to €500), dating from the 1970s, has shelves of mirrored glass and an Italian rosewood sideboard (€1,500 to €2,500) has a mirrored top. Says Rory Guthrie of de Vere's: "The tinted smoky glass gives it more depth - it's like looking into a frozen pond."

Rosewood meanwhile is typically used in Danish design of the mid 20th century.

A small Danish rosewood mirror, dating from the 1960s, is estimated between €200 and €300. In typical Danish fashion there is an added element of functionality in the small shelf at the bottom of the mirror. How Scandinavian is that!


In the salerooms


The Corona chair was first designed in 1961 by the Danish designer Paul Volther. The following year he improved on the design, working with the recently established Erik Jorgensen furniture factory, and the chair went into production in 1964.

With its elliptical, blow-up cushions and chrome-plated steel frame, there's always been something iconic about the design. There's even a photo of the young Jack Nicholson sitting on the blue version of the chair taken in 1971 on the set of Carnal Knowledge. A red version of the Corona chair (€1,400 to €1,800) is coming up at de Vere's Design Auction on Monday at 6pm. The auction includes a number of design classics.

The 6 Up (€1,500 to €2,000), by Gaetano Pesce for B+B Italia is part of the UP series. The chairs were made of moulded foam then covered over with colourful stretch fabric. Compressed and vacuum-packed into PVC wrappers, the furniture literally bounced into life when unwrapped.

The auction also includes a set of six model 7 chairs designed for Fritz Hansen by the legendary Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen. They're estimated to sell between €1,000 and €2,000, with full details on

Morgan O'Driscoll

An auction of Irish and International Art by Morgan O'Driscoll will take place on Monday at the RDS, Ballsbridge.

The sale includes some of the big names of Irish Art. A Kerry Lake by Paul Henry is estimated to sell between €60,000 and €80,000, while Daniel O'Neill's Resting is guided €30,000 to €50,000. Tony O'Malley's Autumn Painting 1 (1981) carries an estimate of €20,000 to €30,000. Colorado Springs, a work by Michael Flatley, is aesthetically in a class of its own and estimated to sell between €30,000 and €50,000. More modestly, The Traveller at Rest by Charles Henry Cook (c 1830-c 1906) is interesting because it shows an unusual portrait of a working man from a rural background. Claudia Kinmonth writes: "He is well fed and clothed in what would have been considered a fashionable style for his class. The corduroy knee breeches buttoned loosely below the knee and his double-breasted, cut-away coat, although slightly ragged, yet clearly repaired and patched, were respectable." For full details see

In the Midlands

An Antique, Art & Vintage Fair will take place in the Tullamore Court Hotel, Tullamore, on Sunday from 11am to 6pm.

"It will be our biggest Midlands fair in many, many years," says Robin O'Donnell of Hibernian Antique Fairs. The hotel will be bursting at the seams with antique furniture, Irish art, jewellery, silver, coins, china and porcelain. On Wednesday Victor Mitchell will hold an antique furniture auction in Mount Butler, Roscrae. Expect traditional antiques including paintings, rugs, silver, antique beds, and lighting. Highlights include a 19th-century mahogany bookcase (€1,000 to €1,500). For full details see

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