While on a client visit in London earlier this year, Robert Copley, International Head of Furniture at Christie’s, was asked for an appraisal of a magnificent giltwood mirror, decorated on both sides with chinoiserie ho-ho birds and idiosyncratic monkey figures in jester’s caps. At the time it was almost impossible to inspect the mirror in detail, but Copley intuitively felt that it was 18th-century, possibly Scottish or Irish.
On closer examination in the Christie’s warehouse, Copley and his colleague Peter Horwood, Christie’s Director of English Furniture, discovered on the reverse of the mirror a previously unseen, aged Christie’s stock number. ‘We didn’t know its earlier provenance, let alone the maker, although it related to other known pieces,’ recalls Horwood. ‘So it was very much a case of following the one certain clue: the stock number.’
Christie’s archives revealed that the mirror had been consigned to Christie’s in 1947 by the Rt. Hon. The Earl of Wemyss and March when it was removed from Gosford House in Longniddry, Scotland, and was subsequently sold at auction on 29 May 1947, where it was acquired by the London dealer Pelham Gallery.
Step forward Sharon Goodman, a specialist researcher in Christie’s furniture department, who contacted the present Earl of Wemyss. With his generous agreement, Dr Sebastian Pryke, an expert on William Mathie, an 18th-century Edinburgh carver and furniture-maker, was permitted to search the family archives. Excitingly, Dr Pryke found a cash book showing that on 26 December 1760 the 7th Earl of Wemyss and March paid William Mathie the sum of £100 for ‘looking glasses & Frames’ — a figure sufficient to cover the cost of several mirrors.
‘Original decoration is of primary consideration — it’s highly likely in this case that the original water gilding is preserved beneath the later layer’
‘It’s highly likely that the mirror was intended to hang in a Chinese-themed room,’ says Horwood. Made between 1760 and 1761, at the peak of a fashion in Britain for chinoiserie, it is ornamented with monkeys, palm trees and birds that would have been ‘an allusion to China’, Horwood explains.
The reverse of the mirror displays a lively chalk drawing of one of the ho-ho birds that sit atop the shoulders of the frame, undoubtedly in the craftsman’s preliminary sketch for the finished article. ‘This offers a fascinating insight into the workshop practice of the 18th-century carver,’ says Horwood.
The mirror is not only a fine demonstration of the skill of the craftsman and of prevailing fashion, but it is in remarkable condition, having remained with successive Earls of Wemyss. It appears to have been regilded only once, probably around 1860-80, and some of the glass has been replaced, possibly at the same moment.
‘When you’re dealing with carved work such as mirrors from centuries past,’ explains Horwood, ‘original decoration is of primary consideration — it’s highly likely in this case that the original water-gilding is preserved beneath the later layer, and with careful restoration, it might once again be revealed.
‘To be able to connect a specific object such as this to a specific furniture-maker, as we can here, is rare,’ the specialist continues. ‘It is certainly rare for 18th-century pieces, when craftsmen did not commonly identify their work by means of a name stamp or label.
‘Here we have a near-complete record that connects a very fine piece, in pretty much its original condition, to the day it emerged from William Mathie’s workshop more than 250 years ago. And that is remarkable.’
The Mathie giltwood mirror will be offered in The Collector: English Furniture & Works of Art sale on 15 November at Christie’s London.