Beautiful Objects: Unfolding the Fan

In Ancient Egypt as the sun bleaches and burns, a lounging noble lying winces in the heat. His wrists and ankles jittering with gold he gestures impatiently to his slaves. They rush forward to cool him down, with a fan.

In feudal Japan, in the birch-filled forests midst bloodied battle, a Samurai deflects a poisoned arrow, with his fan.

In 17th Century Spain Juanita’s lover with lacquered hair and stockings, dives into the ball amongst the sparkling tapers and lace gowns to meet Juanita at the spot she’d indicated, with her fan.

In 1920s England a row of maidens, each one a snowdrop, are lining up. The debutantes, waiting for their presentation to the Queen let only their eyes move; startled, excited, afraid, breathless. Only their eyes move… only their eyes and the trembling ostrich feathers that frill every fan.

Why don’t we talk more about fans? They’ve travelled the world, stopping off with the Incas, in Assyria, in Ancient Greece. They’ve floated and flited through Europe and time, and visited all of the ages. They’ve been used to hide bad teeth, by men to ‘correct’ their children and to brush flies from sacred vessels in churches. They’re one of humanity’s most versatile inventions. But nowadays a fan, more often than not, is a tacky thing bought carelessly; a plastic souvenir, something we pick up from Argos when the air conditioning is down, or something we’ve never thought about at all.

The Fan Museum in Greenwich, which holds the biggest collection of fans in the country totalling over 5000 pieces, was inaugurated by a Mrs Helene Alexander in 1991. Mrs Alexander was instrumental in setting up the Fan Circle International in the 1970s, starting a trust for a Fan Museum in 1985 and ultimately for opening the museum itself. She is still very much the driving force behind the museum, which soon celebrates its 25th birthday, and to which she donated her own collection entirely. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, she came to London in the 50s to study theatrical design at what we now know as Central Saint Martins. 13 years volunteering at the V&A, working with decorative arts must have cast a spell on her, though there was also the influence of her father, a well-known and respected coin collector. Some say collecting runs in families, passed down in the genes along with the heirlooms.

Beautiful Objects: Unfolding the Fan

When I spoke to curator Jacob Moss about how Mrs Alexander came to focus on fans, he replied “I don’t think it was on purpose, it crept up on her, it just happened, and before she knew it, she’d amassed a significant collection, became a connoisseur, taught herself, buying and acquiring, and so she fell into it.” The more involved Mrs Alexander became with her pet passion, the more she felt fans were sneered at, suffering as a subject. Wanting to rectify this, it became her mission in life to raise the status of the fan, bring it back into the artistic conversation and start a Fan Museum to preserve their legacy. As the idea of a museum took seed, she began to scout for a building. When she came across the sprawling early 18th Century Grade II listed house on Crooms Hill, Greenwich, it needed a total overhaul. By all accounts the place was literally a hard hat zone. But since the Golden Age of fans was the 18th century too, for Mrs Alexander it felt like an organic coming together between subject and building – it couldn’t be anywhere else! “Now the space and the subject have become very much enmeshed,” Curator Jacob Moss tells me.

Once however fans were the investment handbag of today. Joseph Addison, publisher of The Spectator in the early 1700s, was known to have said that if he could only see the fan of a disciplined lady he could tell her mood and what she was feeling. Addison also founded an academy for women to be trained in the use and handling of a fan. In regards to fan etiquette he said, “Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them.”

The current exhibition (they do 4 a year!) focuses on the gilded age and is named after it “Fans of the Belle Epoque”. In it you can see fans of mainly French provenance, of a time when Paris was full of peace, pleasures and mother-of-pearl. Belle Epoque refers to a time of happiness in French history, in the two decades before the War; a time of prosperity, when arts and fashion really flourished. In 1889 France hosted the Exposition Universelle and unveiled the Eiffel Tower. The fans on display hint at a dream world… lovers with golden curls, cupids with bows, iridescent glow of dragonflies and floral patterns.

Towards the end of the century as female emancipation was on the rise, the use of fans begun to be thought of as too feminine, girlie, mere fiddlesticks for fun. A woman ought to be able to face the world without a fan. Its stereotypes such as these which have hampered the fan ever since. Curator Jacob Moss notes to me that many, at the inception of the museum, considered it to be catering to a bygone class system. Of course these were deliciously decadent items, a fan belonging to Madam de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, took 9 years to make and cost $30,000. The mount of that fan was intricately cut paper made to look like lace and contained 10 painted miniatures. As a result of their extravagance many felt a Fan Museum was too snobbish, but I’ve never heard anything sillier. We cannot allow old insecurities to put a censorship on art.

Beautiful Objects: Unfolding the Fan

No, we have to preserve and love what we have of the past, and do our best to carry it into the future. This is one of the reasons incidentally that the Fan Museum works on so many exhibitions a year. The conservation of fans begs that they spend most of their time folded, screened from light. Rotating the collection so often not only allows the fans to rest and recover from being on show, but means the museum can really set loose the opulence of its stores by showing us as much as it can.

Now the Fan Museum is an irreplaceable and beloved fixture in Greenwich, where you can even book for afternoon tea. As you can see with fans, they have as long and elaborate a history as even art itself. I can’t tell you much more here, but the Fan Museum can.

To visit the Fan Museum, please take your lovely selves to: 12 Crooms Hill, London SE10 8ER
Or for more information visit:

Photography: © The Fan Museum, London, UK

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