Monday, October 1, 2012

{review} aesop's mirror

Maryalice Huggins Aesop's Mirror (2009)
However wrong, it is always harder to feel sorry for the rich.

After my unhappy encounter with object biography in the form of The Hare with Amber Eyes (in sum: not a fan), I was a bit wary of another object bio. However, I wanted to read Aesop's Mirror because I had worked on Aesop as a graduate student. It suffers from rather a lot of the same thing that turned me off The Hare -- namely too much personal voice at the expense of the object, and an overemphasis on the amateur's delight in basic research -- but the story that the voice tells is an interesting one. 

An antique restorer with a special interest in mirrors stumbles on a very large figural mirror at a Rhode Island estate auction. It depicts, in vivid Rococo style, Aesop's fable of the Fox and the Grapes (which I am told by wikipedia is a story illustrative of cognitive dissonance). The mirror's history was murky (oh dear, I sense some mirror puns coming up) but Maryalice Huggins had a feeling that this find was special. At the same sale she also spent US50,000 dollars on a broken down couch which subsequently was on-sold after restoration for US190,000 dollars. One gathers that her eye for antiques is rather good.

Huggins sets out to track down the provenance of her mirror. Could it really be an important lost English piece by eighteenth century master carver Thomas Johnson? Or is it a product of a pattern-book, and nevertheless still - indeed, more - important as a very early piece of homegrown American carving of the 1830-1840s? The experts cannot agree at all, and Huggins has quite a battle on her hands against a number of the prejudices that automatically arise about something that just does not fit into the canon: as a major work on early American (fake) furniture advises, "Rare is an offensive four-letter word. Unique is an abomination." (source

Some of the experts she consults truly are beastly, but I felt a little uncomfortable in places with her remarks on the snobbishness of scholars towards her enthusiastic enquiries. (I can certainly sympathise: in the area of antiques, vast sums of money can be made courtesy of a scholarly stamp of authenticity.)

Huggins and her mirror (source - I'll be so pleased if anyone 
can answer the question on this link too)

Huggins' book explores a wide range of interesting topics, which as someone who knows zero about Rococo mirrors and the American antique industry, I found quite fascinating. The mirror itself, somewhat ironically, becomes less and less significant to the story as Huggins explores who might have owned it, and from where it might have come originally. She connects the mirror to the Brown family (of Brown University fame), and her archival research enables her to piece together a remarkable - albeit speculative - history involving furniture, Grand Tours ("The outset of the Franco-Prussian War sorely affected her shopping"), and even Charles Parnell, the Irish nationalist. The theme of the mirror, however, remains relevant:
The antiques business was changing, and I was growing a little tired of the politics and the market in general. The theme of the sour grapes now hit home. I half convinced myself I didn't want the mirror anymore and began not to care if I ever saw it again. The fruits it bore, the allure of its former owners, I believed no longer interested me. There was always something else to fall in love with.
This, for me, was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book - the object becomes a burden and a responsibility and a cause of some professional ill-feeling, yet it had such an effect on Huggins that, in the end, although she has sent it for auction, she feels only relief that it is passed in and returned to her care:
Despite the use of technology in determining value, art's effect cannot ever be explained factually. It is really very simple. If a piece has life, people respond to it... After years of investigation, there was really nothing to be proved that could enhance the experience of seeing something I found beautiful. Everything I needed to know about the Fox and Grapes mirror, I knew the moment I first saw it.
So...? I liked the bold speculation backed up by historical research, even if it was pretty speculative. I learned a lot about early American furniture, Rhode Island society, mirrors and the dirty side of the antiques trade.

Anyone read any good object biographies lately? I think I'm hooked...


  1. Interesting. I think yours is th first negative review I've heard of 'The Hare with Amber eyes'. I've not got around to it yet. This one sounds much better.

    1. Thanks Sarah - my review is quite polite, but I found The Hare's narrator's self-absorption too much to stomach.

  2. I wasn't a fan of The Hare with Amber Eyes either but this sounds far more intrigued and much less woolly in style. Added to my wishlist. As for object biographies I can heartily recommend Carola Hick's book, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, which had me engrossed when I read it. For all that it is famous and protected now it has had an awfully exciting and varied past. (My review's here if you fancy it -

    1. So pleased to find someone who didn't like The Hare! The Bayeux book is an excellent suggestion, Alex, esp. as I have it on my shelf. Carola Hicks was my graduate tutor at uni - and a lovely person (sadly, she died in 2010) - so I've been meaning to read it for ages.


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