Thursday, June 7, 2012

A FAN-tastic Museum

"dearest Albert came upstairs to my sitting room and gave me four fans and a beautiful sapphire and diamond brooch".  9, February 1840.  Queen Victoria

So wrote the young queen the day before her wedding.  Obviously, by 1840, fans were an important enough accessory to be deemed  a suitable gift alongside fine gems.

Often, while in Greenwich, I have noticed a sign post for the Fan Museum and thought to myself that someday I must visit there.  It was on my latest Costume and Textile study tour that I made sure to include it on the itinerary.  Like many specialist and private collections, this museum is not to be missed.  Though small, the museum is actually incorporated into two 18th century townhouses, the displays are interesting enough to hold your attention for easily a couple of hours.  With four rotating shows per year, you can always be assured of seeing something new every time you are in Greenwich.

For the benefit of the visitor, a display of fan making tools, processes and definitions was presented in the first display room.

Anatomy of a fan
Birth of Venus, 18th century fan paper, Gouache

The collection consists of extant examples of fan papers, as seen above, as well as a variety of styles covering the 18th through the 20th centuries.  With a strong background in design history, I was struck by how well the fan represented the period in which it was produced.  Colours, materials and motifs were all reflective of the "modes" of the day and the creativity of exploiting new and exotic materials such as, tortoiseshell, nacre, bamboo, straw work, and early plastics competed successfully with the more expected paper fans.  In this one accessory were reflected beauty, the fine arts, fashion, technological advancements and imperialistic ambitions.

Typical folded paper fan, circa 18th century

Tortoiseshell Brise Fan
Nacre Brise Fan
Carved Bamboo
18th century Straw work 
Early 20th century plastic

Display cases were beautifully arranged and clearly labelled allowing a number of people to view their contents without getting into each others way.  Themed, they allowed for insightful comparisons between fans of differing materials and stylistic periods.

Chantilly lace fan, mid 19th century

The Brise fans were my favorite. By definition, it is a folding fan consisting of sticks only, forming a flat surface when open.  A ribbon or cord is threaded through upper slots to hold the sticks together.  Fashionable in the 1830's, it might very well be of the type presented to Victoria by her cousin Albert.

Brise Fan detail
Display from Kyoto Fashion Museum
Our earliest recorded images of fans seem to be made of feathers.  While the first fans were probably made simply of palm fronds, once they became a fashionable accessory, they tended to employ more exotic and consequently expensive materials.  Like women's hats of the late 19th and 20th centuries, entire birds could find themselves mounted, especially during those Edwardian shooting parties, when the ladies would use feather fans of more native species such as, pheasant or grouse.

Jacobean lady with ostrich feather fan

Fans in the mid 19th century often combined elements such as painted silk, lace, feathers and ribbon embroidery.  The example below, while not from the collection of the fan museum, is an interesting example.  When closed, the "guard" is very beautiful and takes on the appearance of a nose gay.  Note the inset of the tiny mirror and gold filigree.  These details employ nicely the mid century interest in the Rococo Revival.  This fan once belonged to the Empress Eugenie of France.

With the advent of photography, the historian is allowed a wonderful opportunity to study the way that fans have been held, displayed and used.  The young girl below, circa 1860, is holding a fan as a suitable accessory which emphasizes a social position that further distinguishes her from her fellow contemporaries.

Mistress of Napoleon III

Souvenir fan of Paris Exposition

The Aesthetic Movement of the 1880's saw the rise of the fan to a decorative motif and ornament worthy of display on wall coverings, china and even in drapery treatments!  Peacock feathers were particularly characteristic of this period as western Europe embraced "Japonism".

By the end of the 19th century it was for formal wear that the fan really grew to outrageous proportions.  This was easily achieved with the use of the male ostrich feathers.  Longer and more luxurious than those of the female.  These fans were very high maintenance and the feathers had to be steamed by a "ladies maid" and the curls worked over a kettle.  When not in use, they would be folded away and stored in their protective boxes, in themselves, often a work of art.

Fan attitude
Feathers were often dyed in fashionable colours
The Wheel vareity, "en cabriolet"

1895, applique of lace, feathers and painted birds on silk
Mother of Pearl & Inlaid Guard

Fans remained popular well into the second quarter of the 20th century.  The example below reflects the influence of Paul Poiret and the Ballet Russes, both in it's colour and pattern.  While the fan remained popular amongst debutantes and those being presented at court, after the Second World War they seem to have faded from use.  Now, mainly of paper, they are only seen at the beach, picnic, or worse yet, in the souvenir shops that populate tourist areas.  

Circa 1914

I have only touched upon the holdings of this museum superficially.  The Fan Museum presents a fascinating and thought provoking experience as only a specialized collection can.  If you make it there, remember to plan ahead and arrange to have afternoon tea in the conservatory with its' view of the walled garden.

The Conservatory

Note:  I would like to thank and acknowledge my friend Penny Knapp for graciously allowing me to reproduce her photographs in this posting, as well as, my previous post around this tour.