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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 7th May 2015
‘For now we see through a glass, darkly’, wrote St Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth. Or perhaps not; modern translations have us seeing not ‘through a glass’ but ‘in a mirror’. The mirror is dark (or dim, or offering a poor reflection, depending on the translator) because that’s what mirrors were like in St Paul’s day. The image that stared back at 1st-century users of mirrors was of necessity not a brilliant one.

It’s likely that human beings first saw their image in still pools – the story of the youth Narcissus in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, who falls in love with his own image and rejects the beautiful nymph Echo, is based on the reflecting pool – and then perhaps in bowls of still water. Finding it was useful to be able to see themselves, our ancestors then realised that by polishing a flat surface they could make a portable mirror.

At first they used hard stones, especially obsidian, which would give a reasonable reflection. Soon they began to polish metal discs and put them in handled frames; metal mirrors like these have been found in tombs across the world, including in Roman, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon graves in Britain. At some point in the later Roman period we find glass mirrors that have a reflective coating of gold leaf or (more affordably) of lead behind them – but even these would have given a dim image.

It was the Chinese in about 500 AD who discovered that you could use mercury to place a coating layer on a piece of glass to make a mirror – and it was this mercury process that dominated the mirror market for more than a millennium thereafter. If we fast-forward to the great Georgian houses of the 18th century we find that the most sumptuous of them will have what are known as ‘pier glasses’ – large, elaborately-framed mirrors – between the windows. Their purpose was three-fold; to give more light in the room during the day, to reflect the candlelight in the evenings, and to show off the wealth of the house’s owner.

The inspiration for using mirrors like this probably came from great houses like Versailles, where Louis XIV’s Galerie des Glaces – his Hall of Mirrors – was begun in 1678.

Mirrors were not just used inside, however. In a glance back to the origins of the mirror, early 18th-century landowners began using pools in their gardens to reflect the landscape and especially the statuary and the buildings that they placed in it. At first many of these pools were long rectangles, usually called canals, but soon other shapes were used. We can study the style nearby, as the earliest part of the Studley Royal Water Garden is a prime example of these mirror pools, with their circular and crescent shapes. The more irregular lake on the approach to Fountains Abbey is later, and has lost some of its mirroring function. And if you want to see a good example of a modern-day mirror pool, go to Littlethorpe Manor, where the little classical temple is perfectly reflected in the water of the pool.

The Georgian gentlemen who commissioned very large pier glasses for the interiors of their homes needed to be rich as, from 1746, glass was heavily taxed – a tax of 300 times the value of the glass itself. The glass tax lasted for 99 years, being repealed only in 1843. In the meantime, though, new techniques in glass-making had come in, with larger sheets being made available – and in 1835 the German inventor Justus von Liebig discovered the modern technique for making mirrors, by using a process of depositing a thin layer of chemically-reduced silver nitrate on to glass.

With the window tax gone and a new, much more reflective type of mirror available, it became the fashion for the middle-classes to have a large mirror over the mantelpiece. It is through just such a mirror that Alice climbs to have her adventures ‘Through the Looking Glass’. But it wasn’t until the later part of the 20th century that architects used mirrors externally. Among the trendsetters in Britain was one of Sir Norman Foster’s first buildings, the curved Willis Faber building in Ipswich – but this relied on very dark glass rather than mirrors for its reflective effect.

It was really in the decade leading to the Millennium that mirrored windows on buildings became fashionable; it was realised that by using mirrors, potentially-ugly buildings could be made to ‘disappear’ by reflecting what was around them. They also had the idea of making the mirrors slightly uneven in texture, to distort the reflections in an ‘interesting’ way. Sometimes the mirror walls are set at different angles to offer even more unusual views; the exterior of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall now reflects the decorated surface of the new Library of Birmingham, for example.

At ‘The Inspire’ in Harrogate the sloping, mirrored walls of the pyramid building beautifully reflect the passing clouds in their flat surfaces, while in Hull a building opposite Holy Trinity Church provides entertaining reflections of the church’s east end and tower in a slightly wavy fashion. And as you travel the world you’ll find mirrored skyscrapers offering slightly distorted and often entertaining views of their neighbours.

There’s another use of mirrors that has more practical value, demonstrated in the town of Rjukan. Until 2013 the town, on the Vestfjord in central southern Norway, was denied sunlight from September to March because of the 1,800-foot mountain Gaustatoppa. Two years ago, though, a series of computer-controlled mirrors was installed on the hills above the town. They direct the rays of the sun into the town centre to relieve both the actual and the psychological gloom of the more than 3,000 townsfolk.

Such an innovative idea is very much in keeping with how human beings have used mirrors throughout history; perhaps it is a history on which we should, from time to time, reflect.

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