Mirrors and other decorative glass panels are among the most handsome reminders of the golden age of the Victorian pub. Chatelaine's Antiques Magazine


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Decorative Art > Pub Mirrors and Glass

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Pub Mirrors and Glass


 Mirrors and other decorative glass panels are among the most handsome reminders of the golden age of the Victorian pub.

 In the 1880s and 1890s there was a great boom in pub building and refitting. Most of the best surviving pub glass dates from this period. Usually it carries advertising, and as a large pub of the time might have had six or seven bars plus a dining room and a billiards saloon, there was plenty of space for bold designs and large, handsome lettering.

 Today the atmosphere in a Victorian or pseudo-Victorian city pub can seem rather gloomy, as comparatively little daylight passes through the decorated glass of windows and partitions. At the time it was built, however, such a pub would have seemed bright and welcoming compared with the dark, mean dwellings of the urban poor.

 Large mirrors were the perfect wall decoration for reflecting gaslight, but that was not the only reason they were so popular. Set in the back fittings of the bar, they allowed a publican to keep an eye out for trouble among his customers, even when his back was turned. Another practical advantage was that they were easy to wipe clean, an important consideration in an atmosphere that was heavily polluted by gas jets and pipe smoke.


 The best mirrors required a remarkable amount of skilled craftsmanship, for the designs were cut into the glass rather than done by the simpler process of etching. Brilliant-cutting was a very time-consuming process, as the large plates had to be manoeuvred into position over the rotating stone wheel rather than the other way around. When the cutter had finished the lettering and perhaps added a decorative border, his work had to be buffed until it was perfectly smooth.

 The mirror was then, in most cases, given further decoration. This was done either by the painstaking process of rubbing an outlined design with emery powder to obscure the clear glass or, more commonly, by etching designs on to the glass by means of hydrofluoric acid. Some decorative features might be created through a combination of brilliant-cutting and etching; the floral motifs set in the corners of a mirror were often done in this way.

 The final stage of decoration - before the mirror was silvered - was painting and gilding. Painting could range from simple logos like the Bass red triangle to veritable works of art. Several Scottish firms, notably Forrest and Son of Glasgow, produced magnificent pictorial scenes, particularly landscapes. Many of Forrest's mirrors were commissioned one-off designs, made to hang in a brewery office.

 Mirrors with ornate cut or etched designs are an inseparable part of any English pub. The mirror's reflective capacity adds light and life to the interior and the pattern adds a decorative touch.


 With the enthusiastic revival of Victorian decoration in pubs that has swept Britain in recent years, reproductions of old designs have become common. These seldom use traditional techniques, most of the designs being applied by transfer. There are, nevertheless, a few firms still capable of working with the old skills and their services are much in demand.


 Good as modern craftsmanship is, however, it is generally easy to spot a genuine Victorian mirror because of its battered frame and the spotting of the silvering on the back. A close examination of the workmanship should tell you what methods have been employed in its manufacture. This is the most important thing to consider in judging the value of a mirror.

 Compared with the mirrors themselves, most of the frames are quite plain, but they are usually made of good quality oak or Honduras mahogany. Some have complicated gilded gesso (plaster) beading, but most collectors prefer the simpler wooden frames; they complement the glass beautifully, particularly if this has a busy, detailed design, whereas the gesso frames sometimes compete with it and therefore detract from its impact.


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