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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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The mating game

Ever since I was taught how to play at the age of 10 years old, I’ve been rather fond of chess. I like to say it’s my favourite sport, along with bitching. It is a board game that never disappoints, can be as fast-paced or as slowly thought-out as the players desire, and involves reserves of foresight and strategy. An individual can reveal much of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses through their manner of playing. And the way in which they win, or more crucially, lose a match. There is something rather special about the hierarchical arrangement of the pieces and their capabilities, with the most important piece, the king, being effectively imprisoned by its token greatness.

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The most powerful piece, given what it can do on the board, is the queen, but this was not always so. Since chess is so ordered, it has echoed major social trends across the centuries. In Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, Marilyn Yalom details how this piece’s power on the board increased with the influence of female wives and rulers in medieval Europe. Yalom views the chess queen as “the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world”. Before around 1000 AD, there were no female chess pieces, the queen’s role being occupied by a vizier or advisor in the Middle East and India, where the game originated. Yalom suggests that its creation was as a result of Empress Adelaide (931-999), the second wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great. She was later canonized. As a result of having to escape from an attempted political marriage to the son of her first husband’s assassin by means of an underground tunnel, she is the patron of victims of abuse, as well as of second marriages, prisoners, and people experiencing conflict with their in-laws. The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff has pointed out another marker of social change in the rules of chess: with the social mobility afforded to craftsmen because of the advent of strong, large stone structures in the Middle Ages, peasants could learn a trade and become wealthy, a impossible prospect before the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is at precisely this juncture that the pawn, the humble, doggedly populous piece of the game -there are 16 pawns in all and, as in the Lewis Chessmen above, the pawn is often faceless and therefore dehumanized- suddenly has the possibility of being queened, that is of becoming any greater piece (generally though by no means always the queen) if and when it reaches the final row of the board.

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Because of its extraordinary tenacity and enduring relevance -and one can think of the Cold War chess games to know how long it has functioned as an effective emblem of power and struggle- chess has a long and varied pedigree of use in art and literature. I am particularly fond of Lucas van Leyden’s “The Chess Players”, above, painted in 1508. The game depicted in this canvas is courier chess, the forerunner to the modern game in which there were more squares and the queen was only empowered to move one square at a time, exactly like the present king. That would change during the sixteenth century with effective queens who yielded power as regnants rather than spouses or dowagers, such as Isabella I of Castile and Elizabeth I of England. There is so much going on in this painting and, as the title suggests, the interest is focused on the people rather than the pieces. The scene is positively crammed with people, mainly men, and there is the definite impression that the authentic game is not that being played in plain sight. The two women stand out both by the relative luminosity given to them but also in less aggressive features. While there is a female player, her male opponent appears to be disinterested in her and a male figure seated to her right is advising her. It is not difficult to see this gentleman as a “mansplainer” and it is tempting to interpret the painting as a representation of women, like the chess queen, having to negotiate the brutal rules of patriarchy in the midst of which they find themselves, caught up but there is not, however, the slightest hint that the females are at all subjugated or browbeaten.

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There are countless examples of chess in literature across the centuries, such as Thomas Middleton’s A Game of Chess (1624), an allegorical play in which political tensions between Spain and England are satirized in a chess match. As well as being an apt source for political tropes, the game has featured in more whimsical works, such as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), above, and has also been brought into play -dreadful pun alert- to reflect the power struggles involved in love. I’ve long been planning an article on chess in French literature, particularly during the early modern period when the first chess manuals were published in order to cater for the upwardly mobile who had to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and be able to converse and act as if to the manner born. Chess has, naturally, loomed large in film and television and there are iconic chess matches such as the one played in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) between HAL and Frank, this particular match -based on a real game- symbolizing and foreshadowing the sinister power struggle between the computer and the human. Kubrick was obsessed with chess, an affliction that blights many creative people; Vladimir Nabokov also possessed an obsessive-compulsive relationship with the game.

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For me, there is only one cinematic depiction of chess and that is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 movie, The Seventh Seal. If you haven’t seen this film, I would urge you to. It is a brilliant work by a brilliant writer and director. I wrote a few blog entries ago that you never forget your first kiss nor your first Bergman movie. Set in the fourteenth century, a knight returns back to his native Sweden after having survived a decade on the Crusades. The film opens on a beach, shortly after his return, and the vivid sound of the sea of the first couple of minutes subsides as the crusader, Antonius Block, faces the personification of death, come to remove him from his mortal coil. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, and the movie’s action veers around this staggered game. Block is, of course, playing for time. As indeed are we all in this game of life and love and ultimately we will lose since Death cheats us all. The film is the first of Bergman’s series exploring faith -and doubt, and the work is at once spiritual and existentialist, austere and rich, uplifting and pessimistic. Like life itself, then.

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There are countless other examples of chess, such as in The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) and Star Trek but only one blog entry. I could not talk about artistic depictions of chess without alluding to the inspired and inspiring use of it in the 2005 spring and summer collection of the late, gifted Alexander McQueen. The theme was “It’s Only a Game” and the catwalk was replaced by models who went through a choreographed game of chess, which can be seen here. The concept is breathtaking and McQueen holds up a mirror to fashion itself, which is, after all, a vicious, ephemeral game with prizes to be won and victims to be vanquished. As Roland Barthes noted in Système de la mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967), clothes are, above all, not about concealing the flesh but rather constitute an expression of the individual wearing them, which he terms a description. Our dress describes us to others. What we wear is, then, completely about deceit based on the conceit of covering our bodies or keeping us modest and warm. Sartorial garments are all about power and seduction and little else, so McQueen’s chess topic hints at the depression that would later, very sadly, take him.

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 Today’s cufflinks are a really exquisite pair, made from sterling silver which has developed interesting oxidization. They each have each of the six chess pieces on the faces with very Nordic lines. The cufflinks have date stamps to 1957 and also bear the place mark of Stockholm. The maker’s mark is BHS, which is B. Sorlings Konsthantverk of Stockholm, active with this mark from 1949 to 1986; I’m grateful to Patrick Kapty for supplying information about this designer. The artist was very skilled and I would like to think that the chess-themed cufflinks are linked to the screening of The Seventh Seal that very year, a source of great pride for Sweden and Swedish cinema, though, of course, it didn’t win an Oscar; another striking and outrageous example of the vicissitudes of the game of life.