A superb Regency carved giltwood mirror of architectural form, with old glass (probably replacing the original) within a rectangular panelled inner frame with a gadrooned and beaded cornice, surmounted by a gilt carved bas-relief frieze portraying on the left a classical semi-naked woman offering a cup to a naked boy, almost certainly the young Bacchus, who drinks from it, to their right and at centre a classical maiden in diaphanous robes turns toward Bacchus while holding a basket of grapes in her right hand and supporting another basket of grapes on the end of a pole balanced across her shoulders, with a large barrel of grapes on the ground between her and a third maiden on the far right who supports a basket of grapes on her head, the frieze and inner mirror frame within an outer frame surmounted by an elaborate entablature with flat cornice incorporating anthemion and foliate borders above foliate dentils and an egg and dart border supported at either end on a flat fronted fluted Corinthian column on a stepped base
England, date circa 1820
Height 210 cm, width at the top 150 cm, width at the base 129 cm.
This very handsome mirror featuring an exquisite frieze, typifies the prevailing interest in classical art and architecture during the early years of the nineteenth century. While its distinctive architectural design and decorative bas-relief frieze compares with other mirrors of the period, it is undoubtedly one of the very finest of its kind. Furthermore, its monumental size and proportions suggests that it was especially made for a palatial residence. Certainly the designer of this mirror was admiring the strict architectural lines based on classical orders to include the Corinthian columns as well an ornate entablature with a variety of distinctive decorative borders. Such is its adherence to architectural details that it is likely that the frame’s design was based on one of the many architectural engravings or bound publications such as Regola delli Cinque Ordini d’Architecturra by Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, published in Rome 1562 of which plate XXXVI shows details of the Corinthian order complete with its entablature with egg and dart border and foliate dentils. Alternatively, the frame may have been inspired by a specific building for instance one of the ancient ruins in Rome and Greece or one of the more recent Neo-classical edifices such as those designed by Robert Adam or John Nash. At the same time it also compares closely to some of the grand English Palladian villas such as Moor Park in Hertfordshire, built circa 1720 to the designs of the Italian architect Giacomo Leoni and featuring flat fluted Corinthian columns crowned by a flat entablature.
The eye is immediately taken to the beautiful bas-relief frieze which could be read as Autumn and the grape harvest, but more likely the childhood of Bacchus, who stands in semi profile, drinking what appears to be wine from a cup. In adulthood he was worshiped as the god of wine, hence the profusion of grapes that spill from the various baskets. Like the Corinthian columns and the entablature above, both the subject and design of the bas-relief reflect the prevailing interest during Regency England in classical antiquity. Like Continental, especially French artists and designers, the maker of this piece was undoubtedly inspired by excavated Greco-Roman works of art and artefacts that having been rediscovered entered prominent collections and were then copied as drawings, reproduced as engraved plates or translated into other mediums.
Among one of the most famous pieces from Antiquity is the Borghese Vase (Musée du Louvre, Paris), a late Hellenistic marble kylix with relief decoration representing a Bacchic procession with satyrs and maenads dancing to music while accompanied by Dionysus and Ariadne, who preside over the revels. Discovered in 1566 in the gardens of Sallust in Rome, the vase was acquired by Napoleon Bonaparte from his brother-in-law Prince Camillo Borghese, when he purchased the latter’s entire art collection in 1808. The Borghese Vase, along with the Medici Vase are two of the most admired classical pieces and had a profound influence on other artists and designers who reproduced it in engravings, biscuit porcelain, stone and silver. It was also one of many examples from antiquity that conveyed the strength of bas-relief decoration, where colour was minimal and beauty relied upon line and form.
Such classical reliefs were put to good effect in France, for instance as mounts decorating gilt and patinated bronze works of art of which some of the finest of the period were made by the esteemed fondeur-ciseleur Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843), whose work sometimes featured a line of classical maidens. Likewise, bas-reliefs also adorned English works of art, reaching perfection in the hands of the potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), whose most famous pieces of that nature included his copy in jasperware of the ancient Portland Vase (British Museum) as well as “The Dancing Hours” of circa 1778, which depicts the classical personifications of the day, known as the Horae who hold hands while dancing in line. The design for Wedgwood’s “Dancing Hours” is attributed to John Flaxman (1755-1826) but was itself inspired by a chimney piece of white marble against a blue lapis ground, which like the Borghese Vase, was once at the Villa Borghese in Rome but in the eighteenth century was moved to the aforementioned Palladian villa, Moor Park in Hertfordshire.
Perhaps an even closer comparison with the present frieze is the Parthenon frieze, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which once graced the ancient temple dedicated to Athena in Athens. Over the years the ancient Greek temple fell into ruin and by 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained. Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens had been a part for some 350 years removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself. Lord Elgin, who was passionate about ancient Greek art, transported the sculptures back to Britain. Their arrival in London was to have a profound effect on society and artists alike with the result of regenerating interest in ancient Greek culture and influencing contemporary artistic trends. In 1816 the marbles were acquired from Lord Elgin by the British Museum, London. It is very likely that the designer of the present frieze had seen drawings and engravings of the Parthenon frieze or actually viewed it since not only is the linear treatment replicated but also some of the individual elements. For instance, the pose of the woman and young Bacchus on the far left of the mirror’s frieze are remarkably similar to the figures of a robed man (Archon Basileus) and child (who holds the peplos) which feature on the central section of the east Parthenon frieze. Furthermore, the same section of the marble frieze shows to the left a girl who, facing the viewer, holds her hand up to a stool which is balanced on her head. Certainly that figure bears a remarkable similarity to the maiden on our far right who instead of a stool balances a similarly shaped basket of grapes on her head. Interestingly that same far right hand maiden on the mirror frieze also bears a close similarity with an engraving of Ceres, reproduced in Bernard de Montfaucon’s great tome L’Antiquité Expliquée, published Paris 1722 (vol. I pl. XLIV). It appears that the inspiration for this wonderful mirror could have come from a number of different sources, all of which looked back to Greco-Roman antiquity and were so beautifully rendered by a variety of artists and designers, in varying scales and in different mediums as manifestations of the classical revival during the latter years of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries.