Mirror image

There is quite possibly no object we use so frequently and carelessly -other than our partners- than mirrors. Whether it be in shaving, combing our hair, checking ourselves before we venture out, or seeing that chocolate has not remained on our lips, mirrors are our daily companions. On one level, it’s quite odd that the first thing we do on getting up, apart from feeling miserable, is to check out our appearance in the mirror, as if to verify that some usurper has not stolen our body. I mean,what do we expect to see other than ourselves in the looking-glass? Mirror is a compact little term and I much prefer looking-glass which neatly combines two concepts (sight and reflection) than the very humdrum sounding mirror. This older use survives in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) and in the familiar yet enigmatic remark by St Paul, “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). Through a Glass Darkly is the title of a 1961 movie by Ingmar Bergman, part of his faith trilogy and which, despite the promise of the title, is quite possibly his most claustrophobic and impenetrable film. Some sounds don’t do justice to what they represent. To me, mirror has always been in this category. While we might mirrors for granted in our homes, toilets, restaurants, and cars, it was not always a banal item. The manufacturing process was very expensive and the process was secretive, being closely guarded by Italian craftsmen working on the Venetian island of Murano, who held a monopoly on producing mirrors which were worthy of the name. As part of the systematic and purposeful manipulation of his image, a propaganda strategy which has been adeptly analyzed by Peter Burke and Joan DeJean, Louis envisioned the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (below), which would involve mirrors of dimensions and number hitherto unknown, all for the purposes of reflecting his grandeur, literally and figuratively.

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Louis did what everyone who wants to break a monopoly must do: he resorted to bribery. He lured several of the craftsmen to France to share the mercury mirror formula and this knowledge spread over the years. Venice was so incensed at this that it sent agents to attempt to poison the renegade artisans. The Hall of Mirrors still remains very impressive and I’m glad that it’s now back on show after a decade of restoration, though it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate this grandiose testament to one man’s self-belief when surrounded by hordes of tourists whose idle chatter and clumsy gait slowly erode one’s spirit and concentration. If I could use a time machine, I would go back to an iconic moment which took place within the mirrored walls of this room. This would be when Louis XV first encountered Madame de Pompadour at a ball held here on 25 February 1745. It began a relationship which would endure until her death nineteen years later, a genuine love affair which outlived the charms of physical passion. Pompadour used her influence well; the Place de la Concorde was designed by her, though jealous courtiers openly libelled her, a gossip strategy which would come back to bite them, as the impetus of this anti-royal slander would drive the Revolution.

ImageI love this painting of her, above, by François Boucher (c. 1750). She is so self-assured that she does not need to look at the spectator for reassurance and affirmation. The book held in her hand – apparently carelessly at first glance but clasped firmly on closer inspection- is no mere prop. Despite the flowers and ribbons which testify to her love of enjoyment and worldly things, the grey background and pensive expression, together with the quill in the foreground -standing on end to denote that she is an active letter writer, all point to an intelligent and deep individual. It is as if we are invited to see the superficial mistress who is much talked about but then are visually guided to go beyond the stuff of legend to consider the real figure. The detail of the first meeting of Louis XV and his love at this costume ball which appeals to me the most is the costume that the monarch was wearing: he was dressed as a yew tree.

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One unintended consequence of Louis XIV’s poaching of the Venetian mirror manufacturers was that mirrors became more available and therefore less expensive, meaning that, within a few years, they became common household objects rather than a sign of opulent wealth. Given the mirror’s ubiquity, it has long served as an obvious and laden symbol in literature and film, and I’m particularly interested in its use in fairy tales, a genre which one of my research interests. It occurs in many tales, from the talking mirror in Snow White to the shards of the magic mirror in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. In Jean Cocteau’s delightful 1946 movie, La Belle et la Bête, a mirror image is first used in the reflection of Belle on the floor she is scrubbing, highlighting her simplicity and obedience, whereas an actual mirror occurs later in the film as a means of Belle to see what is happening at her home (when she is at the castle) and at the castle (when she is at home). In this way, the motif becomes not a vehicle to show introspection in the heroine but rather her concern for others, a purposeful distortion of the Narcissistic trope of mirror images. Ovid’s tale of Narcissus illustrates the dangers of egocentricity and self-fixation, just as the fate of Echo in the same tale, whose obsession for the epicene youth leads her body to fade away to just her voice lamenting her personal tragedy and repeating what she hears – Echo’s echo and whence the origin of the word, demonstrates the risk of unbridled desire.

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John William Waterhouse’s stunning depiction of Echo and Narcissus, above, painted in 1903 during the relatively racy Edwardian period, encapsulates all of the layers of this mythology, including the homoerotic suggestion of Narcissus’s choice of male beauty, albeit his own, over the acutely sensual Echo. Despite the negative connotations of this association, the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror, to know that it is ourselves peering back from the glass, is an observable stage of intelligent development known as the Mirror Test, which occurs in humans at around 18 months of age. It is not only humans which pass the mirror test but also great apes, dolphins, and elephants. Rather than denoting wanton curiosity or unhealthy self-examination, the mirror then also functions as a sign of awareness, of our very consciousness. In exactly a week’s time, the Norwegian village of Rjukan will have direct sunlight for the first time in its history. Nestled in a valley, the population does not enjoy solar daylight for up to six months a year, but this is about to change thanks to a system of mirrors which will reflect and beam sunlight into the town. The mirror should clearly never be taken for granted.

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Today’s cufflinks rather remind me of car side-mirrors. They are fashioned out of sterling silver and are hand signed “aFD ’58” on the backs, meaning they were made in 1958. It’s a quirky and timeless shape on the cufflink fronts which, for me, reflects the timeless topicality of the looking-glass in our lives.

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Strigine symbolism

As an undergraduate I was fortunate enough to spend three years living in the same room in a university college with beautiful grounds (St Hild & St Bede, Durham) which was within a building on the edge of the countryside, not far from the remains of the Iron-Age fort of Maiden Castle. I used to find it consoling to hear the hoots of an owl that must have made its home in one of the trees a few yards from my top-floor window. There is something very special about this bird, something that makes it stand out from any other avian species. It is not only in its characteristic appearance -and each of the 200 odd varieties of owl are distinct, shown in the beautiful photographs below taken by Tim Flach- but also in the fact that it is nocturnal and has evolved to have silent flight enabling the fearsome predator to swoop down on its prey, catching it unawares.

ImageThe word we use for this bird of prey is also distinctive, for the owl belongs to a small category of animals whose call has onomatopoeically developed into its name. It is testimony to the bird’s singularity that this is the case in many languages, such as hibou in French. The Latin word, strix, does not cut the mustard and our current English term has many affinities with an older Indo-European word, being similar to Hebrew and Indian-language names. Somehow, owl-like is much more electrifying than strigine. For once, Latin, you come in second place.

It is not only in its name and physical attributes that the bird can claim a certain uniqueness, for its symbolism is equally unusual. Famously, the owl represents wisdom and was the emblem of the goddess Athena and of the city of Athens itself. This carries on today in the collective noun for the creature; a group of them is a parliament of owls. Rejecting this positive association, it was a portent of doom for the Romans; Julius Caesar and Augustus had their deaths indicated by daytime sightings of the animal. Christian strigine symbolism has inherited this mythological schizophrenia, for the bird has variously been held as an allegory of Christ, relentlessly seeking out lost souls in the darkness (of sin and error), or of Satan, being aligned with dark forces and cunning. In any case, it is not used often in Christian symbolism, though sometimes finds itself in Crucifixion scenes; it was more common in the Middle Ages as seen in 14th-century manuscript illumination below (Reims, MS 993, fol. 153r):

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In popular folklore and superstition, the bird conjures up largely negative imagery, such as in Grimms’ tale The Owl, which relates how an owl is trapped in a barn and a “brave” villager goes in to tackle it only to flee in terror when he hears it hoot. The story ends with the barn being burnt down and the unfortunate bird being roasted (though not, presumably, eaten since it is one of the long list of fowl prohibited in Leviticus, along with cuckoos, gulls, and ostriches). There are some notable exceptions; Madame d’Aulnoy’s La Belle aux cheveux d’or turns the unlucky diurnal appearance on its head, as the adventurer in the tale, Avenant, releases an owl trapped in a net who later helps him, and reflects on humans’ inhumanity towards the vulnerable. Edward Lear provides the redemptive tale of an owl marrying a cat with the aid of a ring taken from a pig’s snout in the whimsical and surreal The Owl and the Pussycat. I always stay at his house in London, located in Marble Arch and now a hotel. Lear is one of those rare breed of people who look as they should look, and the image below does rather depict a fellow who would pen a poem about the mixed marriage between a bird and a feline, though at the same time definitely not someone to whom you would entrust money, children, or pets.

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It has been suggested by some recent critics that the curious, alternate world he created in the self-styled nonsense verse expresses the feelings of alienation from Victorian society that he felt as a gay man, though the most powerful literary expression of similar sentiments has to be found in Hans Christian Andersen’s delightfully dark fairy tales, particularly The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. For my part, I think it’s about time to reclaim the owl and to reject its sinister reputation. It is not always a morbid bird as seen in the magnificently named Owl Nebula (M97), below.

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The owl also featured consistently in designs produced during the Eames Era, in the mid-twentieth century, perhaps a trope for the movement mirroring the bird itself and finding something beautiful that was not universally accepted thus.

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Today’s cufflinks date from the late 1960s and their abstract and brutalist shape suggests an owl to me. They are crafted by Gilles “Guy” Vidal, a Quebec artist who saw himself foremost as a pewtersmith; they are made out of his own formula of a very pure tin-based pewter plated with silver and bear his maker’s mark of GV within a check mark. Vidal is my favourite designer. I love all of the designs of his 44 known cufflinks and possess 15 of them. I think that I can best describe the attraction of his work with reference to the owl itself. It may not possess the evident beauty of the eagle or the sweet song of the nightingale, yet its mysterious nature endows it with a very special kind of draw.