The Georgian era began with the accession of George of Hanover as King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1714. This was a great age of consumerism. The established, and indeed the rising new families, vied with each other in monumental building schemes creating family seats that were furnished in a very extravagant and elaborate fashion. This was an age when not only architects but furniture makers, silversmiths, book binders, instrument-makers, painters, engravers and glassmakers thrived. Ireland, and indeed Waterford, boast an enormously rich artistic legacy from this period and among the treasures of Georgian Ireland on display in the Bishop’s Palace Museum in Waterford is the set of three Irish George II carved giltwood pier mirrors, a single and a pair, dated to about 1754. They are commonly known as the ‘Dragon Mirrors’ because that extraordinary motif is common to all three.
Elaborate fenestration in the great houses of the 18th century allowed light to fill the rooms - this was an age of extravagance of colour and light. Wall-hung mirrors allowed the occupiers of the great houses to magnify the amount of natural light in a room, catching and reflecting the light while the gilt frames that supported the mirrors added to the reflective quality. At night, mirrors really came into their own, helping to transform an otherwise darkened room into a warmly-lit, elegant and intimate space.
Mirrors became the windows of the night, set above the chimney pieces and on the piers between the windows with candelabra placed in front on console tables. Mirrors reflected and magnifed the very expensive candlelight that came from the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the sconces fixed to the walls and the candelabra set before them.
Adding to the great sense of light and opulence were the gilt frames of the mirrors and of the paintings that also hung on the walls. The pendant glass drops that hung from the chandeliers and candelabra and the brass fire surrounds and fenders and even the brass fittings on turf buckets were more reflectors. The highly polished flat silver and silver plate on the table, the metal braided epaulettes and other insignia on the officers’ uniforms and the jewellery worn by the ladies, all helped to create at night that sense of opulence so characteristic of the wealthy class in 18th century Ireland. Mirrors were an essential accessory in a grand house.
Though we use the word Rococo to describe the style of the mirrors, that term that would not have been used in the 18th century. In England and Ireland in the 1750s it would have been called the new or modern manner. This style, very much influenced by the opening up of trade with China, reached its highpoint in the 1750s when Chinese motifs such as dragons were easily incorporated into the Rococo style. The Dragon Mirrors in the Bishop’s Palace are the epitome of this style in Ireland and are therefore a very important part of our national inheritance.
Who made the mirrors?
These mirrors are solidly linked, on the grounds of style and family tradition to Thomas Johnson, who is regarded as the greatest designer/carver of the period in the British Isles. He was working in the Dublin workshop of William Partridge, the most eminent carver there in the early 1750s. Johnson was himself a very poor businessman so he normally worked for other master craftsmen rather than for himself. When Thomas Taylor Junior got married and remodelled and redecorated the family home in Dublin the mirrors were part of the scheme to modernise the property. At this time Dublin was the second city of the British Empire after London and the citizens were very conscious of being at the cutting edge of the latest fashions. Johnson was much sought after in Dublin where his virtuoso and exuberant style was well suited to the Irish taste for rich Rococo furnishings.
Johnson in fact had been working in Dublin since 1746 when he had fled England abruptly when accused of getting his master’s maid pregnant. A particularly religious man, he vigorously denied it. Having refused to marry the maid, twenty years his senior, he was in considerable danger of enforced enlistment in the Duke of Cumberland’s army about to march up to Derby to fight Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebels.
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that the mirrors are by Thomas Johnson can be seen in one of his printed pattern books. The patterns show a huge Chinese influence with dragons featuring prominently. The frontispiece, the decorated first page of his furniture designs book published in 1758, shows a portion of a mirror frame which has many parallels in the Dragon Mirrors now in the Bishop’s Palace.
Today, Johnson’s mirrors not only reflect light but also the obsession in 18th century Ireland to be viewed not simply as wealthy but also to be sophisticated and completely up-to-date with the latest fashion. They are a wonderful reminder of an age of elegance and prosperity.