This exceptional mirror or 'chymney glass' is an accomplished amalgam of Chinese, rococo and classical design. Likely to have been supplied for a fashionable Chinese-style bedroom, the frame is beautifully conceived with deep fluid carving that effectively showcases the Chinese mirror paintings within. The frame was undoubtedly made by one of London’s pre-eminent cabinet-makers such as Thomas Chippendale, John Linnell or the partnership of Samuel Norman and James Whittle. The mirror paintings were probably the patron's own (note Chippendale’s 1767 invoice to Sir Rowland Winn at Nostell Priory: 'to 2 oval glass frames richly carvd gilt in burnish gold and glass border d & cutting & fixing your own glasses in ditto'; C. Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, London, 1978, vol. I, p. 186). This can be compared to the practice where patrons were expected to supply oriental lacquer panels to be refashioned as veneer on case pieces.
An overmantel with similarly spirited carving and classical overtures may have been supplied for Sir Robert Burdett (d. 1797) at Foremark Hall, Derbyshire, which was a significant Chippendale commission although the bills, which date from 1766-1774, are unspecific (A. Coleridge, 'Thomas Chippendale and Foremark Hall', Furniture History, 1997, pp. 136-141). It was later in the collection of his descendent, Sir Francis Burdett, Bt. at Ramsbury Manor, Wiltshire (P. Macquoid, The Age of Satinwood, New York, 1908, p. 41, fig. 34). Chippendale's 1771 overmantel for the Chinese-style state bedroom suite at Nostell Priory shows a more classically evolved design with similar stylised palmettes around an inner oval frame (Gilbert, op. cit., vol. II, fig. 308). Another possible maker is the partnership of carver James Whittle (d. 1759) and Samuel Norman (d. 1767) who supplied extraordinary work for the 2nd Earl of Egremont at Petworth House, Sussex. This includes a state bed whose cusp-pierced foliate cornice compares closely to the cresting on this mirror, and a scroll-framed pier glass with displayed bird in the little dining room (see J. Cornforth, Early Georgian Interiors, New Haven, 2004, pp. 55 and 90, figs. 64 and 114.)
REVERSE MIRROR PAINTING
The Chinese mirror paintings are beautifully rendered and display the range of designs produced at the time (the depiction of a clock in one of the lower plates is particularly rare). Both the practice of painting on glass and the flat glass itself were introduced to China in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. China had a long history of producing utensils and decorative objects in glass. The glass workshop in the Forbidden city was established in 1696, but no flat glass was produced and when it was attempted it was reported that the manufacturers ‘do not know how to do manufacture it with the proper materials’ (Breton de la Martinière, China, its costume, art etc, translated 1813). However, visiting dignitaries had brought mirrors as gifts for the Emperor, such as a Dutch mission which in 1686 presented the Emperor K’ang-Hsi with a pair of large European mirrors, the quality of which was a revelation to the Chinese.
The practice of painting on mirrors developed in China after 1715 when the Jesuit missionary Father Castiglione arrived in Peking. He found favour with the Emperors Yang Cheng and Ch’ien Lung and was entrusted with the decoration of the Imperial Garden in Peking. He learnt to paint in oil on glass, a technique that was already practiced in Europe but which was unknown in China in the 17th century. Chinese artists, who were already expert in painting and calligraphy, took up the practice, tracing the outlines of their designs on the back of the mirror plate and, using a special steel implement, scraping away the mirror backing to reveal the glass that could then be painted. Common designs included still lives, birds and groups of figures, usually depicted against backgrounds of rivers or pavilions.
Many mirrors were brought back to Europe by the companies who routinely plied their trade in the far East, with some carried as ‘private trade’ by crew members (Graham Child, World Mirrors, London, 1990, pp. 361–386). The demand for such painting was fuelled by the mania in Europe for Chinese fashions, promoted by the likes of Sir William Chambers, whose Designs for Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils was issued in 1757, and which found expression in homes of the fashionable cognoscenti. Frederick, Prince of Wales (d. 1752) decorated his gallery in the state apartments with 'four large painted looking glasses from china' for the window-piers according to a description of William Kent’s work at Kew (Sir William Chambers' Plans, Elevations, etc. of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew, 1763, p. 2), while the Chinese Bedroom at Badminton House, Gloucestershire was fitted up for the 4th Duke of Beaufort by William Linnell in 1752-54.
Alice Frederica Keppel, wife to George Keppel and favourite mistress of King Edward VII, was a prominent British socialite recognised not only for her classic beauty but also for her keen sense of humour and magnetic personality. She was the daughter (and one of nine children) of Sir William Edmonstone, 4th Bt. and grew up at Duntreath Castle in Scotland. When Alice was just twenty-two years old, she married the Hon. George Keppel, a son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle, to whom she would remain lovingly devoted to for her entire life despite becoming confidante to King Edward VII just seven years later. In 1898, the twenty-nine-year-old Alice Keppel met Edward VII, then Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, who was twenty-seven years her senior. It was likely Keppel’s 'disarming blue eyes, charm, vivacity, humour, directness, confidence, [and] ripe curves' that initially attracted Edward to Alice, though later it would be her diplomatic demeanour that prompted Edward to consider Alice his 'favorita' and proclaim her his official mistress (D. Souhami, Mrs. Keppel and her daughter, New York, 1996, p. 20.) Alice by no means played an inconspicuous role in Edward’s court. Her social prowess and intoxicating personality fashioned her as one of London’s pre-eminent hostesses. Alice regularly took holidays with 'Bertie' to Paris, Marienbad and Biarritz, sailed with him on his royal yacht and accompanied him at Buckingham Palace for royal fetes. She invited the king to afternoon tea and organized lavish dinner parties at her home at 30 Portman Square where she entertained other important court figures.
After King Edward VII's death in 1910, Alice and her husband embarked on a two-year journey to Ceylon and Dambotenne, China, where they acquired various treasures. Upon their return to London, they moved into their mansion at 16 Grosvenor Street in Mayfair which was newly refurbished and notably featured rooms inspired by different cultures. New exotic acquisitions mingled with Chippendale chinoiserie furniture, porcelain, Coromandel screens and eighteenth-century painted silk panels (op. cit., pp. 104-105). Keppel's daughter, Sonia, noted that these exotic pieces of furniture demonstrated her mother's 'matured taste and knowledge'. It is conceivable that the overmantel was acquired from London’s prominent design/dealer firm of Lenygon & Morant, with whom Mrs. Keppel had dealings. The firm supplied authentic and reproduction interiors for the fashionable society in England, and later the United States, and notably held a royal warrant under Edward’s reign (J. Harris, Moving Rooms, New Haven, 2007, p. 105).
By 1927, the Keppels sold their property and bought a picturesque Tuscan property, La Villa Dell'Ombrellino in Bellogosuardo, just outside Florence. It was here where George and Alice would spend most of the rest of their lives travelling sporadically back to London during the Second World War. She continued her coveted role as royal hostess, entertaining British and Greek royal families and Winston Churchill, who reportedly sat on the Keppel’s terrace to paint the Duomo. The mirror descended within the family until sold in 1991.