The practice of painting on mirrors developed in China after 1715 when the Jesuit missionary Father Castiglione arrived in Peking. He found favour with the Emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong and was entrusted with the decoration of the Imperial Garden in Peking. He learnt to paint in oil on glass, a technique that was already practised in Europe but which was unknown in China in the 17th century. Chinese artists, who were already expert in painting and calligraphy, took up the practice, tracing the outlines of their designs on the back of the mirror plate and, using a special steel implement, scraping away the mirror backing to reveal the glass that could then be painted.
Many mirrors were brought back to Europe by the companies who routinely plied their trade in the far East, with some carried as ‘private trade’ by crew members (Graham Child, World Mirrors, London, 1990, pp. 361–386). The demand for such painting was fuelled by the mania in Europe for Chinese fashions, promoted by the likes of Sir William Chambers, whose Designs for Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils was issued in 1757, and which found expression in the homes of the fashionable cognoscenti, with a prime example perhaps being the Chinese Bedroom at Badminton House, Gloucestershire, furnished for the 4th Duke of Beaufort by William Linnell in 1752-54.
These paintings were formerly owned by the renowned New York philanthropist, writer, and socialite Brooke Astor (1902-2007). Brooke married her third husband, Vincent Astor (great-great-grandson of the famous John Jacob Astor), in 1953. Devoted to supporting charitable causes throughout her life, Brooke took charge of the Astor foundation following the death of her husband in 1959 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.