Dolphin Decoration

In my ongoing quest for the perfect mirror, and more mirrors, I came across this Carvers’ Guild mirror embellished with intertwined dolphins, gracing a San Francisco house designed by Benjamin Dhong in the current issue of House Beautiful.  It caught my eye because I have two very similar mirrors in my “mirror files”:  another reproduction one from Mecox Gardens, and a Regency example from the blog Paisley Curtain.  All similar and all beautiful, I think.

As you can see, the “dolphins” embellishing these mirrors are not your typical Flipperesque variety.  The first English explorers named the large fish they observed patrolling the waters off the eastern coast of North America “dolphins”, thus causing centuries of confusion with the better-known marine mammal.  This confusion finally cleared for me just last year, when I wrote a post about the Lady Pepperell House in Kittery Point, Maine, which features dolphin-fish decoration on its exterior, and the commentators cleared it up for me.  I’m not completely certain, but I think the source of this confusion is John White, who accompanied both Richard Grenville and Walter Ralegh on exploratory tours of the New World in the 1580s, charting and illustrating what he saw along the way.  White’s “Duratho” became Dolphin in common Elizabethan English, and endured.  The Dolphin fish later became known as “dorado”, and later still as “mahi-mahi”.

Dolphin fish seem to have been popular decorative motifs in furniture of the English Regency and American Federal and Empire periods, carved in relief or in part on sofas and tables as well as mirrors. There are lots of dolphin feet, as illustrated by the sofa (circa 1820), Lannuier pier table (1815), and Indian tilt-top table (made for the British market after 1825) below.  The American examples generally come from Philadelphia or New York, not New England, where no doubt the almighty cod was still golden.

Mahogany sofa and rosewood pier table by Charles-Honoré Lannuier, Detroit Institute of Arts via ARTstor; Indian tilt-top table, Walters Art Gallery via ARTstor.


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