This mirror displays lavishly carved oak leaves, graceful gilt candle arms ornamented with leaves and drapery tassels, and a spread-winged eagle. The abundance of vigorous, naturalistic foliage sets the mirror off from others of the same type, such as one considered to be of New York manufacture (New York State Museum, Albany) and another in a private collection labeled by Thomas Fentham of London.
According to Robert C. Smith, this mirror typifies an English neoclassical mirror imported to this country between 1800 and 1820, a time when Fentham was one of the principal manufacturers.1Rice, 58; Smith 1976, fig. 3. The variety of woods used suggests English manufacture, as does the high quality of the oak-leaf carving, made of basswood or lime rather than of cast composition, as is more typical of American-made mirrors. The bobeches are restorations.
The eagle does not by itself point to an American origin or intended American market for the mirror. Charles F. Montgomery noted that “the eagle has been a popular decorative device for centuries, [appearing] as a crest on such frames made in England.”2Montgomery 1966, 276. Helen Comstock remarks that the eagle on the Collection’s mirror is no different from those on English or French convex mirrors, many of which were exported to America.3Comstock 1968, 24. Nevertheless, this classical symbol made such mirrors favorites among American patriots.
Smith has suggested that the eagle, “a regal and animated motif, was probably a survival of a feature of English Palladian mirrors, where in its theatrical pose . . . it represented a baroque intrusion into an otherwise conventional classical setting.” He illustrates a design for a mirror from William Jones’s, Gentlemens or Builders Companion (London, 1739), which was based on an English neo-Palladian doorcase. Smith traces the use of the eagle on mirrors from Jones to Chippendale to Hepplewhite, suggesting the continuity of this design as well as underscoring its non-American origins.4Smith 1976, 350–59.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.