Regency bucks and the women they courted preened their finery in front of handsome, full-length, free-standing mirrors before setting out on their evening's adventures.
The cheval glass became popular in Britain towards the end of the 18th century, and had its heyday in the Regency period, when the cult of fashionable dressing rose to dizzying new heights of vanity and complex etiquette.
Cheval glasses are long dressing mirrors suspended between two pillars by means of a screw at the centre of each side. The angle of the mirror can be adjusted by pivoting on this screw. Some had weights inside the pillars,
similar to window sash-weights, so that the glass could be raised or lowered as necessary. Some people believe that cheval (literally, horse) mirrors were named for this pulley mechanism, a horse being a slang term for any engine, others that the term derived from the four-legged frame that supported the glass.
They were first made around 1750, but received a great boost with the establishment of the British Cast Glass Company at
Ravenshead at St Helens in Lancashire. The company used a method pioneered in France for creating large areas of glass by pouring molten glass onto an iron bed.
BLOWING PLATE GLASS
Prior to this, all looking-glass plates had been made from blown cylinders, which were then reheated and opened out into a flat shape
before being cooled again. This process limited the size of plate that could be made; large mirrors were made up of several small pieces.
Though usually described as full length, the standard size for a cheval glass was 56cm/22in by 86cm/34in, though larger ones were made. The great majority were rectangular, as they was easier to make, and the frames were generally made from mahogany, though some were veneered with rosewood or satinwood.
In the early 19th century, men, influenced by the famous dandy, Beau Brummel, were as much interested in correct dressing as women.
Fastidious followers of fashion would never leave their dressing room, let alone their house without first checking in their mirrors that every detail of their attire was correct.
Just as fashion got more complex, so too did cheval mirrors. By 1805, Sheraton was designing them with drawers and even writing slopes attached. Later in the century, the popularity of cheval mirrors began to ebb. The staid middle classes of Victorian England saw them as vain and decadent, and they began to be replaced more and more by mirrors tucked away inside wardrobe doors.
Cheval dressing mirrors from the Regency period were invariably housed in frames as elegant as the dandies and fine ladies who used them.
Regency and earlier cheval glasses are very much collectors' pieces, and you'd be lucky to find one offered for sale outside of a specialist dealer in antique mirrors or furniture or a good auction house. Victorian ones are much more affordable and can be just as handsome.
Cheval mirrors should not be confused with toilet mirrors or vanity mirrors. These are smaller, made to be placed on a table rather than to stand on the floor, and usually fitted with one
or two drawers beneath the mirror to take cosmetics, combs and so on.
When buying a cheval mirror, look for one in a good frame. Most period mirrors are in mahogany, though rosewood, satinwood and other, more exotic, materials were sometimes used. Bamboo slipped in and out of vogue through the 19th century, for instance.
The mirror should tilt on its pivoting screw at a touch, and stay titled at the angle you want. Sometimes he screws have stiffened with lack of use; a small drop of oil should serve to free them, but you'd do well to ask for this to be applied in the shop, rather than get home and find the join is irreversibly seized up. The condition of the mirror isn't as important as that of the frame. In fact, serious collectors prefer a cloudy, patchy or otherwise distressed mirror of the right period to a modern replacement with perfect silvering.
The mirror or glass can be cleaned with a little warm water and a mild washing-up liquid. Use a soft toothbrush to get into awkward corners. If you use a proprietary glass cleaner, be sure to keep it off veneered or other polished surfaces, as it may stain.
The precursor of the cheval mirror in 18th century dressing rooms was the table mounted vanity mirror or toilet glass.