Wednesday, 10 April 2013

A Fabric Covered Mirror

Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is one of the greatest treasure houses of Europe. The quality of the furniture is breathtaking and it is all very, very palatial in a rather un-English sort of way. However on a recent visit I noticed something quite modest and unassuming that I had never seen before. In a small room upstairs, redecorated in recent years by David Mlnaric there is a mirror frame that is entirely covered in fabric, ensuite with the walls, the curtains, a sofa and the bed. 
 Here is a detail of the mirror - as it's easy to miss .. 
 I have to say I'm not a fan of the solid red carpet, but apparently that is 'very Waddesdon'. As is the elaborate furniture, including those green vases in their gilded bronze mounts, that are to my mind FAR too grand for a room that just wants to be a simple and charming, secondary bedroom. But I suppose this is Waddesdon, so even small, secondary spare bedrooms are given priceless furniture.
It's Le Gout Rothschild ... after all.
So as this is Waddesdon, the lovely printed cotton was recreated specially for this room, from a fragment found elsewhere in the house, but an almost identical pattern (as far as I can work out on the website) is done by Nicholas Herbert in London. He calls it Kaveri and anybody who likes soft faded cottons and linens should check out his website here. It's all beautiful stuff.
But anyway, I had never seen a mirror frame covered in fabric like that before and wasn't sure I liked the way it made the mirror disappears into the background. What I did know, and have always had a soft spot for, were wooden cornices for curtainboxes and fourposter beds that are covered in fabric. They go back a long way, as here at Knole in the 1670s.
I think that is one of the most beautiful beds ever made. I love the proportions, the richness of the material, but at the same time the simplicity of the design. It's so strong but perfectly ladylike at the same time. In the decades that followed it the design and execution of state beds became ever more complicated but the basic idea remained the same; an architectural cornice, carved in wood and glued with the same fabric as the swags, tails and curtains that hang from it. Here is the Queens bed at Hampton Court from the 1690s. 
And about 15 years ago in the same palace, they beautifuly recreated various beds and curtain headings in the rooms where William III used to live. This is a cornice over a festoon curtain in the King's private bedroom, with decorative swags, tails and ribbons.  
 I guess one of the last great state beds that had this kind of  architectural and entirely fabric covered top was the famous bed at Houghton, designed by William Kent in the 1730s. It looked back to the earlier, more architectural style of the bed at Knole,
and is totally covered in green velvet and intricate embroidery that started life being silver. 
After this time a different style came in and the fabric gave way to elaborately carved headings that were usually gilded, providing an amount of bling that the glued fabric could not compete with, as here in the state bed from Petworth. At night, with a few candles, the effect must be gorgeous. 
But that's another story really.
Cornices covered in fabric enjoyed succes in the various William & Mary revivals that the 20th century produced and I think it is still a very attractive way to make a grand statement that is not  over the top. Here is a bed, also by David Mlinaric:
  I think curtains and beds look so much more finished with a cornice like that - Surely it's much smarter than the usual gathered and velcro'd way ? And it's only a wooden cornice with fabric, so it's not that difficult to do.  And also if you have swags and tails, they look so much better coming from a cornice than when they just dissapear over the top of the board that they are fixed on. 
Here are curtains that my colleague Alec Cobbe and I had made when we redecorated Kenwood House, London for English Heritage, using a now sadly discontiued Jean Monro chintz.
We didn't want another silk room, but they had to have style and presence. Reproduced carved and gilded things would have interfered with the original room, so the fabric covered moulding was the perfect solution.
 So anyway, I started with a mirror. And then I digressed to one of my favorite things; fabric covered cornices. But a few months ago I found this image, from the 1840s. It is a tented dressing room in Paris and on either side hangs a mirror frame that is covered in fabric, just as at Waddeson: 
And here it is:
 To be honest, I'm still not entirely conviced by the Waddesdon mirror,
but as far as I can see, it does have a historical background.
Waddesdon from the air; from the website. photo by John Bidelow Taylor
A Bedroom in the Bachelor Wing, Waddesdon Manor
Photo in: Mlinaric on Decorating, Mirabel Cecil and David Mlnaric, 2008
Queen Mary's bed, Hampton Court Palace
Photo in: Great Interiors, edited by Ian Grant, 1967
Detail of Yellow curtains, The Kings Bedroom, Hampton Court Palace
Photo in : World of Interiors, December 1995

Green Velvet Bed at Houghton
Photo in: Fowler / Cornforth, English Decoration in the 18th Century
State Bed from Petworth
Bedroom by David Mlnaric
Photo in: Mlinaric on Decorating, Mirabel Cecil and David Mlnaric, 2008
Kenwood House
Photo in Country Life article on the redecoration
View of a Parisian Dressing room, by Francois-Etienne Villeret
in: Authentic Decor, Peter Thornton, 1984


  1. David, I think the fabric covered mirror frame is much, much more successful in the illustration of the Parisian tented room; the subtle contrast between the stretched fabric on the frame and the same fabric shirred on the walls is sublime. But if the Waddesdon room had a carpet of even the slightest tone-on-tone pattern, I would give it a 'thumbs up.' (After all, it is not a true historic re-creation, anyway).

    1. I totally agree. The Paris frame has a more interesting section, with levels etc that the fabric is stuck into, and also some rosette like shapes on the corners it seems. The Waddesdon frame is totally flat.
      In the Mlnaric book it is said that the red carpet was a Waddesdon tradition, but I agree about the pattern or perhaps a rug on top ..

  2. I must agree with your views on the the secondary bedroom setup. It just seems like a very affected upper middle class person trying to impress.

    But also I am torn about the mirror - part of me like its seamlessness but the mirror just suddenly appearing is very sneaky so it looks like a ghost could appear or some other apparition. It would frighten the life out of me.

    I must say that olive green velvet is something I just adore so I really must go and visit to see that alone.

    Great post as always.

    1. You may have just defined the 'Gout Rotschild' there :)

      That green bed is gorgeous, isn't. I have always loved that oversized shell above the headboard in particular.
      Also, I feel there is something particular about GREEEN velvet, that other colours just don't have.

  3. I generally admire David Mlinaric's work, and pored over every image in Mlinaric on Decorating, impressed with with the
    fervent attention to detail, the lack of pretension, the rightness of his approach (and that of his colleagues) whether understated
    or deliberately overstated. But then there was that little room at Waddeson Manor with its peculiar fabric wrapped mirror frame.
    Very unconvincing somehow, that fabric frame. Yet as you point out in this fascinating post, there are several delightful examples of fabric covered furniture, cornice boards, etc and I once saw a footstool at Syon House that was covered in
    green damask which conformed precisely to the curved lines--and isn't that the point of it, the virtuosity of shaping velvet
    or silk or cotton around architectural mouldings or carved elements? It seems to me quite meaningless to cover a flat frame
    so casually as the one at Waddeson-- the hastily folded over corners don't help one bit.

  4. What a delightful blog, keep up the good work.

    1. thank you ! there will be a slight delay for the next post as I'm relocating to France - but during the summer I hope to resume the writing.

  5. How remarkable! I was just thinking about asking the NT about this fashion for glueing fabric onto baroque bed structures. I was fascinated by it when I spent a bit of time at Calke Abbey and started remembering all the different versions of the technique I'd seen over time. Where did it begin, I wonder?

    Fabulous blog... you've done some marvelous detective work!

  6. This is a very interesting post. You start with a covered mirror more for its value as a conversation piece than for aesthetic merit, treat us to beautifully draped beds and covered cornices, and then move around to a more successful covered mirror. There's a lesson to be learned in texture and volume here.

    I'm very fond of fabric covered furniture - meubles gainés in French - and have been putting some images together for an upcoming post. It takes a lot of artistry and precision to do it well – as you must know best!

    Hope your move this way goes smoothly!

    1. That's a great compliment, thank you.
      the move is happening right now ...
      Must plan a textile visit to Paris !

    2. Please feel free to contact me when your come!

    3. Merci bien alors, I will !

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