An Exceptional Chinese Mirror Picture

Height: 16" 40cm
Width: 19 3/4" 50 cm
Origination: Chinese
Circa: Ch'ien Lung period Circa 1760

Depicting two elegant ladies seated on the bank of a river with one of the ladies playing the flute. They are flanked by a child with a basket of flowers and a gentleman seated to their left.

Private Collection, Canada
H. Blairman & Sons, Sold 6th May 1968

Chinese mirror pictures are a wonderful fusion of Chinese and European art. Prior to the eighteenth century Chinese art was flat and without perspective. In the mirror pictures being produced in Canton, we see both perspective and Chinese landscapes. In fact, the scenes depicted regularly include placid water, buildings, houseboats and hills. These scenes are thought to depict the Pearl river which bisected the city of Canton to where many of the artist producing these works had been attracted by the English factories or merchant houses.
Although there was one glass manufacturer in Canton, the glass produced was too cloudy and the surface too uneven for its use by the artists. Instead, the glass was shipped from St. Gobain in Picardy or from the Vauxhall Glasshouse in London. The cost of a rough plate measuring 60” by 31” was £31 18s. Grinding. Polishing duties, risk and profit increased this to £99 8s. That is equivalent to £10,000 today and would have been enough to employ three skilled tradesmen for nearly a year.
The technique of glass painting involved a great many steps. The glass was cleaned and then washed over with gum water. When the gum hardened the artist painted his picture in reverse. The paintings were then baked in a mixture of quick lime with the temperature slowly increasing to avoid cracking the glass. The painted mirrors were then sent back to England to be silvered and framed. This process hardened the paint and acted to preserve the colours; the paints being sealed from oxidisation by being sandwiched between the glass and the silvering.
Although regarded as trivialities by the Chinese at the time, mirror paintings were highly prized in the west and many notable cabinet makers, including Thomas Chippendale produced frame designs.

G. B. Hughes, The Art of Chinese Mirror Painting. Country Life 8th May 1969.
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