Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Regular readers of this blog may remember a reference I made quite some time ago to the mirror (or more accurately “looking glass”) that once hung in Kenmore’s Passage.  At the time, I was explaining how it was that we knew there was a mirror in the Passage at all, when the 1781 probate inventory doesn’t seem to mention it (at first glance).  Now that we have come to the conclusion that there was indeed a mirror in the Passage, we have the challenge of determining what exactly it looked like, where it came from, how it was mounted on the wall, etc. etc.  It’s another curatorial mystery – and you know how I love those!

As you know, our first preference in furnishings for Kenmore is always Lewis-family pieces, and especially objects that may have actually resided at Kenmore during the Lewis occupation.  So, our investigation into a looking glass for the Passage had to begin with a search for the original piece.  What happened to the mirror that once hung in the Passage?

The story begins in 1797.  Betty Lewis passed away and her remaining belongings were sold at an estate sale held at Millbrook, the smaller farm that she moved to after no longer being able to afford life at her beloved Kenmore.  The sale included many of the furnishings listed in Fielding’s 1781 probate inventory, indicating that Betty had brought much of the furniture at Kenmore to Millbrook.  Luckily for us, a fairly detailed record of the estate sale has survived, showing not only which objects were sold, but also how much was paid for them and who actually bought them.  This list shows that only one mirror was sold at the estate sale.  The probate inventory done at Millbrook at the time of Betty’s death does not record a looking glass at all, so we can assume that the mirror sold in 1797 must have been part of Fielding’s estate at Kenmore.

The mirror went for £2.8 to Alexander Spotswood.  Who was Alexander Spotswood? Known in the historical record as Judge Alexander Spotswood, he was Fielding and Betty Lewis’s grandson-in-law, having married their granddaughter Elizabeth Washington Lewis in 1789.  If the mirror he purchased was in fact the mirror that once hung in the Passage at Kenmore, we have a trail to follow.  The Spotswoods lived in Richmond initially, but several years after the estate sale, they moved to Barren County, Kentucky.  Because the mirror would have been a family heirloom at this point, something that Elizabeth Spotswood no doubt remembered from her grandparents’ home at Kenmore, the assumption can be made that it would have made the move to Kentucky with them.  Unfortunately, no probate records or wills for either Judge Alexander or Elizabeth have surfaced.  A discussion with a researcher at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives revealed that many such records were destroyed during the Civil War.  Without that evidence, our search has to jump a generation, and hope that the mirror might show up in the wills or probate records of one of the Spotswood children.  However, that is a long-shot, and we have to investigate other options.

If we can’t locate the original Lewis looking glass, we will have to acquire a piece that looks as close to the original as possible.  So, what did the Lewis looking glass look like? We have a few clues.  First of all, there are the original brackets and hook mounted in the Passage wall, which were intended to hold the mirror.  The placement of this hardware actually tells us quite a bit.  The two bottom brackets are about 3 feet apart.  The central hook is mounted about 5 feet above the brackets.  Therefore, we know that the mirror that once hung there was at least 3 feet wide and 5 feet tall.  The bottom brackets tell us something else.  They are clearly designed for something that is flat on the bottom, and

One of the 2 brackets mounted along the chair rail.

 about 3 inches deep, to rest on.  Otherwise, the ends of the brackets would interfere with the decorative embellishments and carvings often found around the perimeter of 18th century mirror frames.  Another possibility is that the mirror was decoratively embellished around its frame, but it had a 3-inch “box” behind it, which rested on the brackets.  In this arrangement, the flowery frame of the mirror would have over-hung the chair rail.  The hook at the top was most likely intended to be slid under the edge of a board nailed across the back of the frame.  Therefore, we can assume there was some sort of decorative pediment or moulding on the mirror frame that extended above the hook (meaning the overall height of the mirror was probably greater than 5 feet). 

Although too late for our period, this is an example of a mirror with a flat-bottomed frame (courtesy cowans.com)

An example of the "box" that may have existed on the back of the Lewis mirror, allowing a decortaive frame edge to extend below the chair rail (courtesy bukowski.com)


The other information that the hooks and brackets provide us with involves a bit of supposition.  The hooks and brackets were mounted in the Passage wall during the original construction of the house.  Therefore, Fielding and Betty Lewis already owned the mirror at that time – they knew they were going to be putting it in their Passage, and they knew it would require special supports.  If they already owned it at the time of Kenmore’s construction, it probably was already in use at their first home, the house on Caroline Street where Fielding lived with his first wife Catherine, and then with Betty for 25 years.  Although the Caroline Street house no longer exists, we know from written accounts and tax records that it was a nice place, but nothing lavish, or even overly spacious.  It was not the kind of house in which one would expect to find a monumental looking glass (an expensive piece in the 18th century).  Fielding would have had no reason to make such a purchase for his house on Caroline Street.  Well, suppose he didn’t buy it.  Suppose it was given to him, or perhaps left to him – maybe by his father, John Lewis, who lived at the Lewis family seat called Warner Hall, in Gloucester, Virginia.  Perhaps this rather monumental mirror was a family heirloom, which Fielding inherited from his father’s estate, and then had to find a place to put in his rather modest house.  Unfortunately, there is no way to verify whether or not this rather large supposition is true or not – most of the inventories and wills for the Lewises of Warner Hall have been lost to time or destroyed during the Civil War.  But it’s an interesting premise.  And if it were true, it would indicate that the mirror was of a much earlier period than 1775, perhaps as early as the 1720’s, when John Lewis became master of Warner Hall.

The only other information we have to go on as to the appearance of the mirror comes from basic research into consumer trends in the 18th century.  Looking glasses were almost always imported to the colonies from England.  Sometimes, just the large plates of mirrored glass were imported, and then American craftsmen created the frames, but that seems to be happen more often in the Northern colonies than in the South.  As we know that Fielding Lewis was far more likely to get his household goods from England (due to his shipping business) than from American sources like Philadelphia and New York, we can assume that Fielding’s mirror was English. 

So, what are we left with at this point? An English looking glass, dating from as early as 1720 and as late as 1775, measuring 3 feet wide and 5 feet tall, at minimum, and either having a flat-bottomed frame, or a 3-inch deep box on the back.  Or, we could just find the original Lewis mirror and the mystery would be solved once and for all.  Keep your fingers crossed for us – this mirror won’t be the easiest thing to find!

Looking Glass, ca. 1740, English - GWF Collection, 94.508, Gift of Mrs. Franci B. Crowninshield, Mrs. Frank Stranahan, and Mrs. John Eddy, 1937

Looking Glass, ca. 1770, English - GWF Collection, 94.507, Gift of Mrs. J. Amory Haskell, 1938










*Mirrors must be en vogue right now! Our friends at Stratford Hall are dealing with their own mirror dilemma – check out their recent blog post!

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