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.
August 15th, 2012 at 9:18 am
Interesting post! Dolphin-fish are one of those motifs that once you start seeing it, you notice it everywhere. It’s a common architectural embellishment, too, and something often seen on seals of cities and associations, particularly here along the East Coast. Keep your eyes peeled!
August 15th, 2012 at 9:38 am
Thanks Michelle– I am certain that is true, and I think keeping your eyes peeled is a great, conscious endeavor/philosophy at all times.
August 15th, 2012 at 9:46 am
I saw that mirror on a blog the other day and I thought it was a pair of serpents. Although it goes to show what I know, I still like the idea of a serpent mirror.
August 16th, 2012 at 8:05 am
They don’t look like dolphins to me. Except the dolphin fish.
That sofa reminds me of one my Aunt would have, that no one was allowed to sit in.
August 16th, 2012 at 8:35 am
Forgot that the dolphinfish are also the insignia for Navy submariners. While working in Mystic, CT, I often met folks from the Groton submarine school who had just “earned their dolphins.” — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Submarine_Warfare_insignia
August 17th, 2012 at 9:35 am
Very good to know, Michelle. Thanks.
August 18th, 2012 at 5:43 am
Wonderful photos, continue to give us these visual candies.