Manmade objects are all freighted with history. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of an object is why something was made, because it is a snap shot, in some form or another, of the social history of the moment. For example, the mirror in the photo is a smallish rococo mirror that I have hanging in my apartment. I have seen three other similar examples of this design, none of these were an exact duplicate, but which were so close that it was clear that they were all made, if not by the same wood carver, in the same shop.

Whenever you get multiples of something there is a faint possibility that the shop was making the item on speculation. This becomes more and more plausible through the 18th century simply because there was burgeoning wealth. As more homes needed furnishing, fewer people were getting bespoke furniture and items made on speculation became more and more likely. Indeed, I owned a set of chairs made circa 1790 that were identical to my sister-in-law’s, save for the fact that mine had finer details in the finishing with little flourishes of individuality here and there.

I would date my rococo mirror circa 1755 because that is the tail end of the rococo period (for furniture, at least) in England and the frame is clearly rococo. Dating furniture has always been approximate based on the evidence of style and certain other telltale signs, such as the back, unfinished part of the frame. But knowing how competitive the furniture industry was by 1770, and also knowing that new styles may supplant old styles in some, but not all, markets leads me to believe that some maker was hawking rococo frames well after the rococo style was, at least from a furniture historian’s point of view, over.

There is another reason why this frame was probably made later than 1755 which is its size. This is not a grand frame suggesting that it was made for a smaller scale architectural situation. Although small frames were made for grand houses, they were not as common as you might think. Mirror plate was expensive and it was much more likely that a client would want large scale frames since the cost of making the frame was not excessive, but the cost of the plate was. And because the function of mirror plate was more for reflection than about looking at yourself, a smaller frame makes little sense.

Could I be incorrect about this frame? Absolutely, but it is unlikely and a supplementary reason is because I have another small frame, this one made with carton pierre, a material similar to papier mache. The design is attributed to Linnell, a major furniture maker of the 18th century. That his firm would mould a mirror frame speaks to his seeking out labor saving techniques to supply a new market that was less likely to buy bespoke furniture. In other words, competition, as I said before, was fierce and that even the top firms were interested in supplying the newest markets.

Clearly, not much has changed since 1770, at least from the point of view of market demand and supply.  But what we can learn from these two mirrors is that neither style nor craftsmanship moves in a straight line. The romance of the 18th century craftsman as being dedicated to his craft belies the need to make a living. As for the vicissitudes of style, it has always been subject to the vagaries of fashion and the whims of clients. This ambivalence is to be expected of our species, but it undermines our belief in an orderly progression. What else is new?